WASHINGTON - Digging in for a fight, President Barack Obama riled both Senate Republicans and Democrats on Monday by nominating former senator and combat veteran Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon and anti-terrorism chief John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hagel and Brennan, in separate Senate confirmation hearings, will face sharp questions on a range of contentious issues, including U.S. policy about Israel and Iran, targeted drone attacks and harsh interrogation tactics. Of the two men, Hagel is expected to face a tougher path, though both are likely to be confirmed.
Hagel would be the first enlisted soldier and first Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon.
President Barack Obama and former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, left, listen as Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan speaks Monday at the White House.
"These two leaders have dedicated their lives to protecting our country," Obama said, standing alongside them and the men they would succeed during a ceremony in the White House East Room. "I urge the Senate to confirm them as soon as possible so we can keep our nation secure and the American people safe."
For Obama, a pair of combative confirmation hearings could turn into a distraction as he opens his second term. But the president signaled he was ready to take that risk.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has been criticized as hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. Opponents also have highlighted his 1998 comments about an ambassador nominee whom he called "openly, aggressively gay" - a comment for which he only recently apologized.
Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, was under consideration to run the agency after Obama won the 2008 election but withdrew his name amid criticism from liberal activists who questioned his connection to the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration.
One of Hagel's toughest critics, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called his former colleague's foreign policy views "outside the mainstream" and said he would be "the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history."
Perhaps even more concerning for Hagel's prospects has been the tepid response from some Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said Hagel had earned the right to a full and fair confirmation hearing, but he reserved judgment on whether he would back him.
And Maryland's Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin said he and other lawmakers "have questions that have to be answered" specifically on Hagel's views on Iran and Israel.
Obama called Hagel "the leader our troops deserve" and someone who could make "tough fiscal choices" in a time of increasing austerity. The Pentagon is facing the potential of deep budget cuts in the coming months.
The 66-year-old former senator has defended his record on Israel and Iran. Hagel accused his opponents of having "completely distorted" his views.
Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. During his tenure in the Senate, he voted against unilateral economic sanctions on Tehran, though he supports the joint international penalties Obama also prefers. Hagel also irritated some Israel backers with his reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the United States.
The White House focused instead Monday on the military record of Hagel, who was awarded two Purple Hearts.
"Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," Obama said. "He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary."
If confirmed, Hagel and Brennan will join Secretary of State nominee John Kerry as Obama's key national security advisers in his second term. Kerry, a longtime Democrat senator from Massachusetts, is expected to be easily confirmed by his Capitol colleagues.