Former national security officials back stalled Pentagon nominee

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More than 50 former national security officials, diplomats and lawmakers, as well as Jewish communities leaders, threw their support Thursday behind President Biden’s stalled nominee to lead the Pentagon’s policy shop.

In a letter Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the group argued Colin Kahl, Biden’s nominee to be undersecretary of Defense for policy, is “eminently qualified.”

“Given Dr. Kahl’s strong support of Israel and firm approach to Iran, we strongly oppose the smear campaign against him and the use of his nomination as a proxy for relitigating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” they wrote, referring to the Iran nuclear deal by its official name.

The letter was organized by former U.S. ambassadors to Israel Dan Shapiro and Martin Indyk; former undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy, who was under consideration to be Biden’s Defense secretary and introduced Kahl at his confirmation hearing; and Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Kahl’s nomination for what’s considered the Pentagon’s third-most-powerful civilian job has stalled amid fierce opposition from Republicans over what they describe as partisan outbursts on Twitter where he was critical of former President Trump.

Republicans have pointed to tweets such as one where Kahl said Republicans “debase themselves at the altar of Trump” and called the GOP the “party of ethnic cleansing” in response to a news story on Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) defending Trump’s decision to move troops out of northern Syria ahead of a Turkish invasion.

During his confirmation hearing, Kahl apologized for the “disrespectful” language in his tweets and pledged to approach the Pentagon job in a nonpartisan way, saying his past government service demonstrates his ability to do so.

Kahl served as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president and before that was the Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East.

Democrats have largely dismissed criticism of Kahl as hypocritical after most GOP lawmakers stayed silent on Trump’s inflammatory tweets. Democrats have also said Kahl’s nomination is being used as a proxy for Republican opposition to Biden’s efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Kahl does not need Republican support to be confirmed. But with a 50-50 party split in the Senate, he cannot afford to lose any Democratic votes if all Republicans oppose him.

As such, attention has fallen on Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a Senate Armed Services Committee member considered a swing vote. Biden’s first nominee for budget director, Neera Tanden, withdrew from consideration after Manchin joined with Republicans in opposing her, in part over past tweets.

Manchin told reporters Thursday he remains undecided on Kahl as he becomes the focus of a fierce lobbying campaign.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Manchin last week to press him to support Kahl.

On the other side, Christians United for Israel has placed full page ads in newspapers across West Virginia urging people to contact Manchin in opposition to Kahl, accusing the nominee of “hostility” toward Israel. The same group also backed a letter sent to Manchin last week from 70 Republican West Virginia state lawmakers opposing Kahl.

Thursday’s letter supporting Kahl rebutted criticism of his record on Israel, saying he was an “early advocate” for U.S. funding of the Iron Dome missile defense system in 2009 and also backed a $38 billion, 10-year military aid package for Israel signed in 2016.

“Just as we are confident that Dr. Kahl is committed to the U.S.-Israel relationship, we also know he has never wavered in his effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran,” they added, saying his job at the Pentagon during the Obama administration including overseeing military contingency planning for Iran.

Co-signers of the letter include some big names in defense and foreign policy such as retired Gen. John Allen and Bush administration State Department official Eliot Cohen. Also on the letter are former Democratic Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.), Mel Levine (Calif.), Howard Berman (Calif.) and Ron Klein (Fla.).

“Dr. Kahl is one of the leading national security practitioners in the country, who has demonstrated an expert understanding of the Iranian threat,” they wrote. “He is committed first and foremost to furthering America’s national security interests in the Middle East, which includes thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, nefarious regional activities and aggression, proliferation of ballistic missiles, and human rights violations, while ensuring the security of our allies and partners, especially Israel.”

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn Lloyd Austin Neera Tanden Steve Israel
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