The new Defence Secretary of the United States, Chuck Hagel, made for grim news in India even before he took oath. His elevation was welcomed with as much apprehension in recent times as possibly only Collin Powell’s appointment as Secretary of State was in 2001.
Both were seen through the prism of their pro-Pakistan slants. This time, the Hornet’s nest was stirred by the publication of Hagel’s remarks made in 2011.
A video obtained by Washington Free Beacon showed Hagel speaking at Oklahoma’s Cameron University about how “India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan”.
The former Senator from Nebraska had gone on to allude to India’s role in Af-Pak conflict: “There is some history where Afghanistan and Pakistan have similar interests. But mainly, they have not had similar interests. India is the other piece of this.”
“India for sometime has always used Afghanistan as a second front and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border — and you can carry that into many dimensions.”
Going by the pro-development standpoint of India as far as engagement with Afghanistan is concerned, this was more than enough to kick up a storm.
The Indian embassy in Washington put out a statement strongly rejecting Hagel`s allegations, saying: "Such comments are contrary to the reality of India`s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people. India`s commitment to a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan is unwavering."
And while the United States also took some pains to distance itself from these remarks and even Pentagon has vouched for Hagel being “strongly committed to the US strategic partnership with India and to fostering an even closer defence relationship with India that builds upon the work of Secretary (Leon) Panetta, Deputy Secretary (Ashton) Carter, and their Indian counterparts", Indian scepticism has set in deep.
This is not the first time that Hagel suffered from foot in the mouth. In the past, he has run into controversies over his kid-glove treatment of and speeches on Iran; Texas Republican Ted Cruz being one of his severest critics.
Such has been the bitterness associated with Hagel that even his appointment turned out to be one of lengthiest and most acrid in recent times. His confirmation was a close shave after only four Republicans crossed the political divide to come to his favour in the Senate. And that too happened after a thorough and tough round of prolonged questioning.
Coincidently, like Powell, Chuck Hagel has a military background and is now the first enlisted soldier to lead the Pentagon. A veteran of Vietnam War, he was decorated with two purple hearts.
Hagel has earned most of his wealth as the co-founder of Vanguard Cellular and has served as the president of an investment banking firm - the McCarthy Group. He has also held the position of CEO of American Information Systems Inc.
In his political career, the Republican first got elected to the Upper House of the country in 1996 and had voted for authorising necessary and appropriate US Military force in Afghanistan against plotters of 9/11. But since then a lot has changed. In 2011, he was already advocating for “looking for the exit in Afghanistan” and winding down of the operation.
He had also co-sponsored the failed Kosovo Resolution, which would have given the green signal to President Bill Clinton to use US military force against Yugoslavia.
As an interesting habit, Hagel is known to wear Halloween costumes to masquerade as Colin Powell, Joe Biden, John McCain and the like. However, in his new avatar as Defence Secretary, Hagel would have to come up with some original ideas, especially at a time when Obama is pushing for spending cuts despite immense pressure on the US military.
These are challenging times and some innovative thinking will bide Hagel well, if he wants to carve his identity as a successful Defence Secretary.