WASHINGTON: Chuck Hagel took charge of the US Defense Department on Wednesday after a bruising confirmation fight – and two days before billions in budget cuts are scheduled to hit the US military.
The Republican, who still faces skepticism and anger from some former US Senate colleagues of his own party, was sworn in after a deeply divided chamber voted Tuesday to confirm him.
In remarks made in a talk at the Cameron University in Oklahoma in 2011, Senator Hagel was quoted as accusing India of financing problems for Pakistan over the years from across the border in Afghanistan.
The video of his speech reappeared on a website of the Washington Free Beacon, an American news portal that publishes associated content from a US conservative perspective.
Hagel reportedly said that India had been using Afghanistan as a second front against Pakistan. “India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border, and you can carry that into many dimensions.”
The video had given more fuel to his opponents trying to block his nomination because of the alleged anti-Israeli statements he had made in the past.
In the course of the nomination fight, Republicans insinuated that Hagel has a cozy relationship with Iran and received payments for speeches from extreme or radical groups. Those comments drew rebukes from Democrats and some Republicans.
The new US Secretary of Defense, a twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran, now faces $46 billion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that will hit the Pentagon on Friday unless a deal can be made by the Obama administration and Congress to avoid them.
Among Hagel’s other challenges are deciding on troop levels in Afghanistan as the US military emerges from two wars and fighting worldwide terrorism with smaller, deficit-driven budgets.
He also will have to work with lawmakers who spent weeks attacking him in one of the bitterest fights over a Cabinet choice in more than two decades. Fellow Republicans were angry that he had strayed from the party line on several issues.
“I am honored that President Obama and the Senate have entrusted me to serve our nation once again,” Hagel said in a statement.
Hagel was expected to address civilian and uniformed employees at the department later in the day Wednesday.
Hagel joins President Barack Obama’s new, second-term national security team, including Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director-designate John Brennan.
Obama alluded to the need for cooperation in his statement welcoming the vote.
The president said he was grateful to Hagel “for reminding us that when it comes to our national defense, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans, and our greatest responsibility is the security of the American people.”