Caustic tweets and policy controversies come back to haunt Biden pick for top DOD role

Senators grilled Colin Kahl about his positions on Israel and Iran — and a social media history of partisan vitriol.
Colin Kahl, nominee Defense undersecretary for policy, at a Senate confirmation hearing

President Joe Biden's nominee to fill a top Pentagon post is under fire from Republicans for a history of uncertain support for the top U.S. ally in the Middle East, support for the Iran nuclear deal and — much like failed OMB director nominee Neera Tanden — a trail of caustic partisan swipes on social media.

Colin Kahl, nominated for undersecretary of defense for policy at the Department of Defense, faced tough questioning Thursday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee from Republicans openly opposing or harboring serious doubts about his nomination

With credentials burnished in key positions in the Obama-Biden national security orbit, Kahl was a natural for the DOD undersecretary for policy post under Biden. During the Obama years, he served first as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, then as Vice President Biden's national security adviser. But for Republicans who see him as a tart-tongued hyperpartisan in the Tanden mold, Kahl brings a lot of baggage with him.

"He's always been somewhat of a polarizing figure, especially in conservative circles," said Adam Kredo, a senior national security and foreign policy reporter at the Washington Free Beacon.

Among the controversies under scrutiny by conservatives, Kahl was one of two people who took the brunt of the blame for attempting to change the Democratic Party platform in 2012 both to exclude language affirming Jerusalem as the permanent capital of Israel and remove the phrase "God-given." 

Then-President Obama's allies scrambled for days to distance Obama personally from the deletion of either phrase, both of which were ultimately restored, purportedly at the president's direction. Still, it was unclear to some, especially within the pro-Israel lobby, why the language was removed in the first place.

"We welcome the amendment referencing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and we applaud the DNC for listening and for being responsive to the concerns raised by supporters of Israel," said Abe Foxman, then-national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "But we are still troubled that it was removed, and it should not have happened in the first place. 

Asked at the time whether he was being unfairly blamed for the platform controversy, Kahl claimed the omission of the Jerusalem affirmation was misinterpreted, even as he evaded the question of his personal responsibility for the tin-eared contretemps. 

"I don’t think there was any intention by the drafters to signal any change in U.S. policy," Kahl told Foreign Policy magazine at the time. "Clearly, it was misinterpreted that way. So the president intervened to correct the record and they changed the platform." 

At the end of the Obama-Biden presidency, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to halt the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In what was seen as a departure from the norm — the United States generally vetoes Security Council resolutions that unjustly target Israel —President Obama opted not to object to the resolution.

America had "abandoned Israel, its only ally in the Middle East" said Israeli minister Yuval Steinitz. According to Kredo, it was "Biden and Kahl" who "played a key role in convincing other nations to promote [the resolution] at the UN." 

For some on the pro-Israel Christian right, Kahl has his regional priorities altogether backwards. "He places far more emphasis on supporting the tyrants of Tehran than America's closest ally in the Middle East: Israel," reads a statement of opposition to Kahl's nomination from Christians United for Israel.

Kahl is also in hot water for a series of Tandenesque tweets. Some of the more incendiary among them were displayed during his hearing Thursday.

"The GOP used to pride itself as a party that put values front and center in US foreign policy. Now — as they debase themselves at the alter [sic] of Trump — they are the party of ethnic cleansing," read one. In another, he called the Republican party "a clown show."

If confirmed, Kahl would play a central role in the way America "postures toward other nations," said Kredo, adding that lawmakers typically "don't want that role to be filled by somebody who is hyperpartisan, and I think especially over the four years of the Trump administration, Kahl showed that he is exactly that."

For such reasons, several Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are now opposing Kahl's nomination. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas told Kahl during the hearing that he does not think him "fit to sit in the Pentagon and make decisions about life and death." 

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe recently said that Kahl's "hyper-partisanship" undermined his suitability for a role that requires "a leader with judicious temperament and sound judgment." A representative from Inhofe's office said the senator also "has serious concerns with some of the policy positions that Mr. Kahl has taken in the past."

GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has also come out against the Kahl nomination, as has Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who, citing a sulphorous Kahl tweet, said the nominee's "exaggerated views and incendiary remarks" were "not what we're looking for in someone that will serve advising policy within the Department of Defense."

But for Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, the Republican complaints about temperament and partisanship were a deflection from the real sources of their opposition to Kahl: the Iran nuclear deal.

"I think your nomination is sort of a proxy for a sharp difference of opinion in this committee and in Congress about the wisdom of the JCPOA, and that is the core of many questions today," said Kaine.