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Powell champions Hagel as defense secretary and rips some Republicans

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that President Barack Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, was “superbly qualified” and would be a strong advocate for Americans in uniform.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Meet the Press to discuss the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become defense secretary, the administration's policies in Afghanistan and the evolution of the Republican Party.

“This is a guy who would be very careful about putting their lives at risk because he put his life at risk,” Powell told NBC’s David Gregory.

Hagel, who was seriously wounded while serving as an Army infantryman in Vietnam, was a Republican senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009.

Related: Israel avoids public spat with Obama over Chuck Hagel defense nomination

“He knows what war is and he will fight a war if it’s necessary, but he’s a guy who will do it with great deliberation and care,” Powell said.

Like Hagel, Powell served in Vietnam. He later was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before serving as secretary of state under George W. Bush. He endorsed Obama’s candidacy in 2008 and in last year’s campaign.

Even before Obama announced the Hagel nomination last week, it came under fire. The Washington Post editorial page opposed him for not supporting economic sanctions against Iran.

Powell said Hagel does not rule out the use of military force against Iran. “I think what Chuck Hagel has said is that nothing is ever off the table. But he is one who believes in the prospects for negotiation.”

Some supporters of Israel have chided Hagel for saying “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here (on Capitol Hill).”

Powell said, “Chuck should have said ‘Israeli lobby,’ not ‘Jewish lobby.’ Perhaps he needs to write on a blackboard a hundred times, ‘It is the Israeli lobby.’”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Sen. John McCain make strong statements, Sunday, regarding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as U.S. secretary of defense. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

Powell said Hagel is “a very, very strong supporter of the state of Israel” but “that doesn’t mean you have to agree with every single position that the Israeli government takes.”

If Hagel is confirmed by the Senate, part of his job will be to scale back the $630 billion Pentagon budget. As for Hagel’s comment that the military is “bloated,” Powell said if there are unnecessary parts of the military, then “I hope he does find bloat – and gets rid of it.”

As a senator, Hagel voted for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but later was harshly critical of Bush’s conduct of the operation. In 2007 Hagel said “before this (Iraq intervention) is over, you might see calls for his impeachment."

Hagel also opposed Bush’s Iraq surge strategy in 2007, calling it "the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”

But Powell on Sunday firmly defended Bush’s 2003 decision to order the invasion of Iraq and his own role as secretary of state in advocating for that invasion.

Bush in 2003 “had more than sufficient basis to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction that were a danger to the world… and so he undertook a military action. I think that was the correct thing to do,” Powell said. 

But he added, “We did not execute the operation well,” since the fall of Baghdad in 2003 “was just the beginning” of a prolonged peacekeeping operation.

Despite his support for Obama, Powell said, “I’m still a Republican,” but he delivered a prolonged criticism of the Republican Party, rebuking the hawks in the party. “They’ve lost two elections. The American people have made it clear that they are not particularly interested in finding new conflicts to get into.”

“I think what the Republican Party needs to do now is to take a very hard look at itself” and at the attitude of some Republicans toward ethnic minorities, he said, accusing unnamed Republicans of “intolerance” and “(looking) down at minorities.”

Powell criticized – although did not identify by name -- former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who served as chief of staff for President George H. W Bush and as an aide to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, for calling Obama “lazy” after his first debate performance and 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin for using the phrase “shuck and jive” in criticizing Obama’s explanation of the administration’s response to attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi.

Since Obama nominated Hagel last week to succeed Leon Panetta as defense secretary, the administration has been trying to bolster support for the nomination in the face of criticism from Senate Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, both members of the Armed Services Committee which will conduct Hagel’s confirmation hearing later this month.

In comments on another Sunday morning program, another Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “I honor Chuck Hagel’s service” and “he’s a friend,” but questioned “whether he really believes that the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War. That clearly is not correct – in fact, it’s bizarre.”

He also criticized Hagel for not supporting a move to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. McCain said he wasn’t announcing how he’d vote on the nomination but wanted to hear Hagel’s responses to questions during his confirmation hearing.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., also a member of the Armed Services Committee, said on Fox News Sunday "it perplexes me why the president nominated Sen. Hagel."

She said some statements from the Iranian government “that were favorable to his nomination. In fact, they said they were hopeful that with his nomination, they hoped that we would change our policies. What I want to make sure is that Iran is actually not hopeful, but they're fearful” of the secretary of defense because “that will cause them to stop marching toward acquiring a nuclear weapon."

Taking a noncommittal stance on Hagel’s nomination is a leading Senate Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who on Meet the Press on Dec. 23 passed up the chance to support him.

Last week, Schumer told WHEC, the NBC affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., that “before I make any determination, it is only fair to sit down and talk with him and ask him some very serious questions about his views on Iran, on the Middle East, on the military in general.”

But in the end it’s highly unlikely that Schumer, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, would embarrass Obama by opposing Hagel.