| Chuck Hagel
Washington, Feb. 26: With the clock ticking on former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination for US defence secretary, India has been unwittingly drawn into the efforts to block his confirmation by the Senate. The powerful pro-Israeli lobby here is at the centre of efforts to get President Barack Obama to withdraw Hagel’s appointment.
The Indian embassy in Washington yesterday cautiously responded to hitherto unpublicised comments purportedly made by Hagel two years ago that India has “for many years” been behind terrorist activities in Afghanistan aimed at Pakistan.
Asked for its reaction to the charge, the embassy wrote in an e-mail to the website which unearthed a video clip of Hagel’s speech that “our attention has been drawn to some media reports about comments made by Senator Chuck Hagel in 2011 in which he reportedly alluded to ‘India financing problems for Pakistan in Afghanistan’. Such comments attributed to Senator Hagel, who has been a long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-US relations, are contrary to the reality of India’s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people.”
It is clear from the embassy’s e-mail that it is sceptical about any anti-India convictions in Hagel’s mind and that the government of India expects the defence secretary-designate to either deny those views or come clean on what he said and the context of the speech. The e-mail offers no confirmation of Hagel’s views and refers to “comments attributed to Senator Hagel”. The implication is that the veracity of those comments is still in the realm of speculation.
The Washington Free Beacon, which brought to light Hagel’s speech at Oklahoma’s Cameron University, is an arch conservative web newspaper launched a year ago and sees shadows of the “Left” in everything it surveys. Its mission statement has a quote from Ronald Reagan that oozes Cold War fantasies.
Efforts to contact Hagel were not successful. Typically, a nominee avoids media comments that could muddy the waters while the confirmation process is under way on Capitol Hill. But the expectation is that he may choose to clarify statements attributed to him in Oklahoma because Hagel’s record in the Senate is that of a friend of India contrary to what he purportedly said about India and Afghanistan in this case.
Hagel enthusiastically supported the Indo-US nuclear deal at a time when many of his colleagues in the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, were opposed to it or lukewarm and had to be persuaded through a multi-pronged lobbying effort to change their minds.
Assuming that the clip of Hagel’s speech is genuine, he has only improved upon the privately stated views of the first Republican administration of George W. Bush, which underwent a transformation in the Bush second term after Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state.
In the first Bush term, Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, went to great lengths to prevent greater involvement by India in Afghanistan at the behest of Pakistan and even pressured New Delhi not to open consulates in Afghanistan, merely confining itself to an embassy in Kabul.
A letter, said to be from the office of the Republican co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, John Cornyn, to mobilise the Indian American community in the campaign to thwart Hagel’s nomination, therefore, has shades of opportunism and falsehoods. The letter was circulated to some media outlets here last night by Sampat Shivangi, National President of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, an ethnic Indian organisation.
The letter from Cornyn’s aide, Dave Hank, to Shivangi read: “I think Indian American community needs to work on to see how we can help to stop his (Hagel’s) nomination for the post of secretary of defence in view of his attitude and his biased opinion on India. We will definitely follow up with our Senators and impress on them on the folly of such a nomination.”
It continued: “Please let us know how else we can join in Senator Cornyn’s effort to stop this nomination of Senator Hagel which is contrary to the belief of Obama administration and I am sure President Obama would not agree on the views of Senator Hagel on India specifically.”
At the time of writing, the Senate was poised to vote to end a “filibuster” on Hagel’s confirmation. A continued filibuster would have meant a debate without end and no vote on the issue under Senate rules.
Once the filibuster is ended, the debate on Hagel will be limited to 30 hours but it could be less before a vote. Opponents of Hagel, therefore, have only a day and a half after the end of filibuster to throw out his nomination, which explains the efforts behind stories like his Oklahoma speech.