Washington: Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel was on Wednesday sworn-in as the new US Defence Secretary, in the midst of a controversy over his remarks that India "financed problems" for Pakistan in Afghanistan. Sixty-six-year-old Hagel, a Vietnam war veteran, was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday after a bruising confirmation hearing.
Senators voted 58-41 to approve Hagel, ending a long and acrimonious nomination process and clearing President Barack Obama's choice for the top post held by Leon Panetta. Sworn in by the Director of Administration and Management Michael L Rhodes, Hagel took the oath of office in a private ceremony attended by family members and his immediate office staff. Hagel's confirmation comes as a great relief for the Obama Administration as his nomination was held up for weeks and the Democrats and the White House had to do a tough convincing act to get him approved by the Senate.
Several Republican Senators are said to have voted in favour of Hagel despite their reservations over his past statements and votes. They argued that he was too critical of Israel and too compromising with Iran. Republicans have also been irked by Hagel's views on NATO as he had in a speech questioned the utility and relevance of the US-led force.
Hagel will replace incumbent Panetta at a time when the department is faced with multiple challenges including defence budget cuts, rapidly changing developments in the Middle East, increasing threat from North Korea besides the scheduled withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014. Welcoming the confirmation, President Obama said Hagel is the kind of Defence Secretary America needs.
"With the bipartisan confirmation of Chuck Hagel as our next Secretary of Defence, we will have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve," he said. In a statement, Obama said he will be counting on Hagel's judgment and counsel as the US ends the war in Afghanistan, bring troops home, stay ready to meet the threats of the time and keep the military the finest fighting force in the world. Hagel's confirmation comes a day after a video containing his remarks surfaced in which he claimed, "India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border".
Reacting to this, the Indian Embassy here said, "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 Afghan people". The Embassy said Hagel's remarks are in sharp contrast to viewpoint of Obama Administration that has always been in praise of India's developmental role in Afghanistan and in fact has been pressing New Delhi to do more in Afghanistan.
"India's development assistance has been deeply appreciated by the people and the Government of Afghanistan, and by our friends around the world including the US. We do not view our engagement with Afghanistan as a zero sum game," it said. Obama nominated Hagel on January 7. Hagel testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 30, and the committee recommended him for confirmation to the full Senate on February 12.
Hagel earned two Purple Hearts during service as an Army sergeant and served as senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009. "From the moment he volunteered for military service in Vietnam, Chuck has devoted his life to keeping America secure and our armed forces strong. An American patriot who fought and bled for our country, he understands our sacred obligations to our service members, military families and veterans," Obama said in the statement.
"Most of all, I am grateful to Chuck for reminding us that when it comes to our national defence, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans, and our greatest responsibility is the security of the American people," he said. Vice President Joe Biden said Hagel's talent and dedication to the country are clear wherever he is. "He feels a deep commitment to our men and women in uniform, and as the head of the Pentagon I know their interests will always be close to his heart. Most importantly, I know the President will be able to rely on Chuck's sound, unvarnished judgment on any issue where our troops are involved. For that and many more reasons, I'm looking forward to working with Secretary Hagel," he said.
Following the confirmation vote in the Senate, Hagel has received congratulatory phone calls from Panetta, congressional leaders. "In his conversation with Secretary Shinseki (Eric Shinseki), the Senator indicated his desire to meet as soon as possible to continue and deepen the strong partnership between the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans Affairs on common priorities for serving our troops, veterans, and military families," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.