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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 8, 2013

Pro-Israel group's ad depicts Obama and Hagel disagreeing on Iran

President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as defense secretary is expected to create a hotly contested fight about his comments on Israel and Iran.

Pro-Israel hawks have cast a portrait of Hagel as too soft on Iran and not chummy enough with Israel. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said a day before the Jan. 7 announcement that if confirmed, Hagel would be "the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the State of Israel in our nation's history."

The Hagel nomination comes two months after Obama won re-election amid much debate about Obama’s relationship with Israel. Obama still won the vast majority of the Jewish vote, but by less than 2008. 

The Emergency Committee for Israel, a pro-Israel group whose board members include high-profile conservatives Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer, aired an ad in December attacking Hagel, even before Obama officially announced his pick to replace Leon Panetta who is retiring.

"Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel?" asks a disgusted sounding narrator. "President Obama says he supports sanctions on Iran. Hagel voted against them. Hagel voted against labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. And while President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran, Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. President Obama, for secretary of defense Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option."

There are a lot of claims in that ad, but we wanted to check if Obama and Hagel disagreed about military options for preventing a nuclear Iran. We contacted the Emergency Committee for Israel about the ad and did not get a response.

We also did not get a response from the White House. But in a press briefing the day Obama announced his nomination of Hagel, White House spokesman Jay Carney defended Hagel as a "staunch supporter of Israel" and "a supporter of the broad sanctions regime that this President has put into place against Iran... ."

Hagel told a newspaper in his home state of Nebraska that critics have distorted his views on Israel and Iran, but he did not directly address whether he would favor striking Iran.

Obama has said regularly that he leaves all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. Here’s a representative comment from the 2012 AIPAC conference: "I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency."

Hagel’s record

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in Nebraska in 1996 and served two terms, including serving on the Foreign Relations Committee before he retired in 2008.

Hagel’s experiences on the battlefront made him cautious about war. "I'm not a pacifist. I believe in using force but only after a very careful decision-making process. … I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war," he said in an interview with Vietnam magazine.

Hagel voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq but was later critical of those wars, creating a wedge between him and the GOP, including a rebuke from former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Hagel also drew fire for comments he made in 2006 to author and former State Department Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," Hagel said, but "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."

Miller recently wrote that accusations that Hagel is anti-semitic "is shameful and scurrilous."

Featured Fact-check

While some of Hagel’s views are out of sync with current U.S. policy, it won’t matter because Obama controls foreign policy, Miller wrote.

Hagel on Iran

The ad attacking Hagel cites a Dec. 13, 2012, article from the Washington Post leaving the viewer to believe that Hagel made that statement about Iran on the eve of his nomination. But the Post article recapped various Hagel comments -- including that particular one, which actually goes back to 2006.

We did our own research and reviewed multiple comments Hagel made in speeches and interviews between 2005 and 2012. We found that Hagel repeatedly called on the U.S. to engage Iran in direct discussions and expressed concern that a military attack on Iran could lead to widespread counter-attacks.

But his caution was at least in part borne from the fact that we were already engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On CNN in April 2006, an interviewer asked Hagel if diplomacy failed, if the U.S. should pursue a military strike.

Hagel’s response including these comments: "Well, first of all, I think we have to recognize that this Iranian issue does represent a real threat to the United States. ... unlike Iraq. This is a real legitimate issue. And I think, before we charge off in going off to another war -- we're in two of them now, in Afghanistan and Iraq -- we'd better think through this one carefully and clearly. I think it's going to require an engagement directly with the Iranians."

Later in 2006, Hagel visited Pakistan.

Pakistani Press International reported that Hagel ruled out any military action against Iran. "I do not expect any kind of military solution on the Iran issue," Hagel said, adding President George W. Bush and senior members of his cabinet had said the military option was not a responsible approach to resolving the issues. "I think to further comment on it would be complete speculation, but I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option."’ (This is the comment the ad directly quotes.)

In 2012, Hagel still expressed caution about military intervention, but didn’t specifically rule it out.

In a March 2012 interview with the news website Al-Monitor, Hagel said that we should not be locked into one of two options or "false choices."

The interviewer then suggested as a false choice: "Bomb Iran or live with Iran with a bomb?"

Hagel responded: "Exactly. We may eventually wind up with those choices. But I don’t think we’re there now. We’ve got some time, keep ratcheting up the sanctions, keep the world community with you. … You cannot push the Iranians into a corner where they can’t get out …You’ve got to find some quiet ways – and you don’t do this in the press or by giving speeches – to give them a couple of facing saving ways out of this thing so they get something out of this, too. And recognizing internally what’s going on in Iran; things are not going particularly well. Let that play out… So you work this thing on a number of parallel tracks."

Hagel criticized the Republican presidential candidates, saying "they can hardly race to say who would bomb Iran first; it’s just amazing."

In a September 2012, Hagel co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed that specifically included military options: "Our position is fully consistent with the policy of presidents for more than a decade of keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution. Since the consequences of a military attack are so significant for U.S. interests, we seek to ensure that the spectrum of objectives, as well as potential consequences, is understood."

Our ruling

The Emergency Committee for Israel said in an ad, "And while President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option."

Obama clearly has said all options are on the table. But the ad portrays Hagel’s comments as occurring in December 2012, he actually stated them in 2006. In the past, Hagel did repeatedly warn against jumping into another war and called for discussions with Iran, but the comments the ad cites were made when the United States was engaged in war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2012 in an op-ed he co-wrote, Hagel called for "keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution."

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Emergency Committee  for Israel, "Chuck  Hagel: Not an option," ad, Dec. 19, 2012

CNN, Transcript of State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Jan.  6, 2013

Washington Post, "Gay rights activists voice doubts about Chuck Hagel as prospective defense secretary,"Dec. 20, 2012

Washington Post, "Hagel retracts 1998 statement on gays, Human Rights Campaign accepts,"Dec. 21, 2012

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "How the faithful voted: 2012 preliminary analysis," Nov. 7, 2012

Lincoln Star-Journal, "Exclusive: Hagel says critics distort his views on Israel, Iran,"Jan. 7, 2013

White House,  Jay Carney press briefing, Jan. 7, 2013

White House,  Remarks by President at AIPAC Policy Conference,  March 4, 2012

The Atlantic, "Obama to Iran and Israel: as President of the United States, I don’t bluff," March 2, 2012

POLITICO, Transcript of third presidential debate, Oct. 22, 2012

The Atlantic Council, Chuck Hagel, Accessed Jan. 8, 2013

Los Angeles Times, "Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary to come Monday," Jan. 6, 2013

Los Angeles Times, "Obama likely to nominate Chuck Hagel for defense secretary,"Jan. 4, 2013

Mother Jones, "Hagel’s half-courageous stand on the Iraq war,"Jan. 7, 2013

Reuters, "Chuck Hagel forged bond with Obama on Iraq,"Jan. 6, 2013

Foreign Policy, "Is Chuck Hagel toast?"Dec. 24, 2012

Washington Post,  "Chuck Hagel’s ambiguous stance on dealing with Iran,"Dec. 13, 2012

Council on Foreign Relations, "A conversation with Senator Chuck Hagel on the Middle-East and U.S. Foreign Policy,"Nov. 15, 2005

Council on Foreign Relations, "A conversation with Senator Chuck Hagel," May 8, 2007

Atlantic Council, "Chuck Hagel delivers speech for J Street First National Conference,"Oct. 27, 2009

Al-Monitor, "Hagel praises Obama on Syria, chides GOP on Iran," March 2012

CNN, Transcript of interview with Sen. Chuck Hagel, Accessed in Nexis, April 2, 2006

Washington Post, "Attacking Iran may trigger terrorism,"April 1, 2006

Washington Post op-ed,"Iran talk: What’s in a war?"Sept. 28, 2012

Associated Press, "S-India civilian nuclear deal won't harm ties with Pakistan, China, U.S. senator says," Accessed in Nexis, April 13, 2006

Pakistani Press International, "US Senator hints at Pak-US. nuclear cooperation," Accessed in Nexis, April 13, 2006

Interview, Peter Feaver,  Duke  political science professor, Jan. 8, 2013

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