What Chuck Hagel would, and wouldn't, bring to job of Defense secretary

Chuck Hagel, a storied Republican maverick with a record of voting against his party, opposed the war in Iraq, supports engagement with Iran, and backed Barack Obama in his first presidential run.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
President Obama meets with the co-chairs of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, including former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska (r.), in the White House in this Oct. 28, 2009, file photo. Mr. Hagel is reportedly on a shortlist to be the next Secretary of Defense.

Republican Chuck Hagel, a former US senator with a strong independent streak, is now widely seen as the front-runner for the job of secretary of Defense.

Aside from having forged a friendship with President Obama, Mr. Hagel has several other assets that may play to his favor as the president reshapes his national security team for his second term.

For starters, senators would likely afford Hagel the sort of easy confirmation process that fellow lawmakers tend to accord one another.

Then, there's the 'R' after his name. In nominating a Republican, Mr. Obama would again demonstrate his commitment to bipartisanship, as he did by carrying former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – a Bush appointee – over into his administration.

Next, Hagel is a military combat veteran. He served in Vietnam alongside his brother, who was a fellow squad leader. Such experience is helpful for a potential Pentagon head serving in the wake of two decade-long wars, because he knows intimately the struggles of those returning from battle, longtime colleagues point out. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misidentified the brothers' role in the military.]

“Chuck Hagel has the experience as a combat veteran with two purple hearts and an understanding that the decisions that are made in Washington ultimately are carried out by young men and women across the globe,” Sen. Jack Reed (R) of Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Politico. “That is a very important intellectual, emotional asset.”

But the degree to which Hagel and Obama appear to be in sync on policy affecting the Pentagon may be what has moved him to the head of the line. 

The two have long worked together, first as senators and lately in the president’s council of advisers, where Hagel serves as co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. 

They forged a friendship due in large part to Hagel’s willingness to take on members of his own party. Hagel supported Obama’s 2008 presidential candidacy, and has asked tough questions about America’s wars. He opposed the invasion of Iraq, crossed party lines to call for an investigation into pre-war intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and even questioned Obama’s decision to surge troops into Afghanistan, comparing it with an increase of forces in Vietnam. 

“It’s easy to get into war, not so easy to get out,” Hagel wrote in a 2009 opinion piece for the Washington Post. “Accordingly, we cannot view US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only ‘winning’ or ‘losing.’ Iraq and Afghanistan are not America’s to win or lose,” he wrote. “Win what? We can help them buy time or develop, but we cannot control their fates.” 

Hagel is also known – and reviled in some conservative circles – for favoring US talks with Iran, as has Obama. 

In a speech this week at the Atlantic Council, which Hagel directs, he pressed this case, without ever mentioning America’s arch-adversary directly. “Engagement is not surrender. It’s not appeasement,” he told the assembled audience. Rather it is “an opportunity to better understand” others.

America will need allies, too, he noted, because the conflicts of the future “are beyond the control of any great power,” he argued, and unlikely to involve unilateral US action. 

But perhaps his most vocal detractors are likely to come from advocates of Israel. The home page of the Atlantic Council, for example, features a critical piece on “Israel’s Apartheid Policy.” 

“While in the Senate, Hagel voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, and consistently voted against sanctions on Iran for their illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons capability,” Josh Block, a former spokesman for the American Israel Pubic Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and president of the Israel Project, told The Daily Beat. “It is a matter of fact that his record on these issues puts him well outside the mainstream Democratic and Republican consensus.” 

Unlike current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Hagel is also said to be rather unsympathetic to the Pentagon’s pleas of the pending insolvency it claims could come with sequestration, the series of $500 billion in mandatory cuts the Department of Defense faces if Congress doesn’t come up with another fiscal plan by Jan. 2. 

“The Defense Department, I think, in many ways, has become bloated,” Hagel said in 2011. “In many ways, I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” 

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