POLITICS
02/27/2013 11:13 am ET | Updated Feb 27, 2013

Chuck Hagel Battle Wounds Could Linger At Pentagon

WASHINGTON -- If there's one thing Tom Korologos has learned in four decades of advising officials through sometimes bruising confirmation battles, it's that politicians tend to hold grudges against those who don't vote for them -- even if they win.

"They remember," said Korologos, who has guided luminaries like Antonin Scalia and Henry Kissinger though the high-pressure senatorial process, and now works as a strategic advisor at the Washington law firm DLA Piper. "They remember long and hard."

In the hours after it became clear that Chuck Hagel would be approved as the next secretary of defense on Tuesday, the debate over what would most be remembered about the long and ugly confirmation battle that preceded it began in earnest.

Among the losers, there was a mad dash to claim some scraps of victory: Hagel would be have to work harder to earn the respect of Congress, they contended. He would be chastened in his less desirable views. He would be weakened as a leader.

"He's got some work to do," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, in an exchange with reporters during Tuesday's votes which eventually saw Hagel confirmed by 58-41. "I think he's going to have to work extra hard with us on the committee."

But if Korologos' experience is any indication, the fallout may end up swinging the other way, and it could hinge on what exactly Hagel himself chooses to remember, and for how long.

"'Weakened' is in the eyes of the beholder, but in the end he's the one who's been confirmed," Korologos said. "He'll be back in there, and the first thing they're going to start fighting tonight is sequester, and by Friday everybody will have forgotten the vote. It's not everlasting. Except in the eyes of the guy that didn't get them all."

Indeed, in the days following his confirmation, Hagel has to return to Capitol Hill to help hash out a deal on a budget sequester that would impose massive cuts across the board to the Pentagon. Then he will negotiate with lawmakers over a more restrained budget trim that could affect military spending and jobs in states represented by his chief opponents on the Hill.

All the while, the issues that were elevated above all others by his chief antagonists -- the ones that drove the most vociferous and inventive opposition to his confirmation -- will sit firmly in the forefront of his docket: the military's relationship with Israel, and America's belligerence toward Iran.

For months, these were the terms that dominated the scrap over Hagel. He was accused of not being pro-Israel enough -- of even being anti-Semitic at some points. He was grilled over his personal associations, over the benefactors of organizations he volunteered with and over reports he'd signed his name to years ago.

The rancor grew so heated -- particularly after Hagel's appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he was repeatedly harangued over his supposed disdain for Israel -- that one former Israeli diplomat, Alon Pinkas, decried it as a "venomous and iniquitous" showing.

"An ally doesn't need to be dissected nor questioned, which is why it exudes weakness and insecurities," Pinkas said of the displays of Israel adoration at the hearing. "More than anything, it was saturation pandering and you cannot but ask whether ordinary Americans find this to be disproportionate."

The aim of those questioning Hagel along these lines was to use relentless attacks to batter him down from his most feared policies -- conciliation to a nuclear Iran, for instance, or reducing military aid to Israel.

"The Republican Party is rock solid in its support of Israel and determination to prevent Iran from getting a bomb," wrote Jennifer Rubin, the tireless anti-Hagel crusader, in a Tuesday Washington Post blog post. "In order to be confirmed Hagel had to pretend he was, too. That is called winning the policy war, if not the confirmation battle."

Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration national security aide, agreed that the fight had been good for the pro-Israel viewpoint, and the GOP as a whole. "The fight against Hagel presents the Republican party as a very pro-Israeli party, which is a good thing," Abrams told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

An alternative view is that the fight only diluted the hardline pro-Israel position on military aid and Iran by making it partisan, and that Hagel, having won, now feels empowered by the hardliners' failure to stop him.

"Celebrating this as a wedge issue is about the worst possible outcome from the point of view of the vast majority of the pro-Israel community," said Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs for J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that supported Hagel's nomination. "When you have SNL, the Daily Show, Colbert mocking the extent to which conservative members of Congress were falling over themselves to demonstrate the most hawkish positions on Israel, that's something that the true pro-Israel community does not appreciate, and which we have every reason to believe the government of Israel itself does not appreciate."

George Little, the Pentagon's spokesman, insisted none of this will pose a problem. Hagel, he said, is a "team player" eager to work with his counterparts in Congress.

But almost immediately, Hagel faces decisions on Israel that won't benefit from party-line disputes. If nothing else, sequestration will inevitably impact aid to Israel, including possibly leading to cutbacks to the Iron Dome missile defense system, which recently proved so instrumental in protecting urban centers from rockets from Gaza.

And on Sunday, the largest conference of pro-Israel lobbyists and activists, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, convenes in Washington. AIPAC's purpose is to generate bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. This year, the group's more specific goal is to convince Congress to vote to designate Israel a "major strategic ally" of the U.S. and green-light an attack on Iran.

Hagel's role in all of this will be one of choice. But if AIPAC can pull any of it off, it will be likely in spite of the environment created by his nomination, not because of it.

Luke Johnson contributed reporting.

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