News Column

Hagel No Shoo-in for Defense Chief

Jan. 7, 2013

Tom Vanden Brook

Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel is not known for turning down a fight.

Originally ordered for safe duty in Europe, Hagel instead asked to be sent to Vietnam in 1968 when opposition to the war was peaking domestically and fighting escalated in southeast Asia.

He and his brother Tom led squads of the Army's 9th Infantry Division. Hagel was wounded and received two Purple Hearts.

If President Obama nominates him for Defense secretary as expected today, Hagel will face opposition from members of his own party.

When Hagel's name surfaced last month as a potential nominee, he faced criticism almost immediately. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, has said on CBS that Hagel lacks the experience to lead the Pentagon. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Armed Services committee, said on NBC that Hagel should not expect many Republican votes.

Among Graham's concerns: whether Hagel is tough enough on Iran and strong enough in his support of Israel.

Washington engaged in a similar pre-emptive fight late last year when Obama considered nominating Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to be secretary of State until she withdrew herself from consideration. The president nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for the post now held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama has hailed Hagel as a patriot in an interview on NBC. Obama served with Hagel in the Senate.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Hagel appears likely to favor ending the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan rapidly.

"It's hard to believe he'd support commanders in the field as much as previous secretaries, in terms of where their instincts tend to be," O'Hanlon said in an e-mail. "I believe that his previous statements suggest he'd support a fast drawdown. I just hope he'd take time to reconsider before blessing that approach -- as I'm sure he would."

On the budget, Hagel could be expected to challenge the Pentagon's commitment to keeping as many troops on active duty as it did during the 1990s and pricey weapons systems such as the F-35 fighter jet, O'Hanlon said.

Over the next five years, the Army is scheduled to lose about 80,000 soldiers to reach 490,000 active-duty members. The Pentagon plans to spend nearly $400 billion to build about 2,500 of its next-generation fighter jet.

The former senator shares many of the same ideals of Obama's first Pentagon leader, Republican Robert Gates. When Obama became president in 2009, he asked Gates to remain as Defense secretary. Both Hagel and Gates talk of the need for global answers to regional conflicts and an emphasis on so-called soft power, including economic and political aid, to bolster weak nations.

"A Hagel nomination signals an interest in, and a commitment to continuing a bipartisan approach to national security," said David Berteau, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said Hagel's two terms in the Senate, before he retired in 2009, spanned the later years of the post-Cold War military drawdown and the post-9/11 buildup.

"From a budget point of view, he has seen both ends of the spectrum, and that gives him a good perspective to start from," Berteau said.

Hagel often straddled party lines and had some high-profile dustups with his Republican colleagues.

In 2008, he criticized Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, saying that she lacked foreign policy credentials and that it would be "a stretch" to consider her qualified to become president. His wife, Lilibet, endorsed Obama in his first run for president. Hagel also was mentioned as a possible candidate for Pentagon chief when Obama was first elected.

In 2012, Hagel endorsed a Democrat in the U.S. Senate race in Nebraska, former Senate colleague Bob Kerrey (who lost).

Hagel, 66, was born in North Platte, Neb., and went to a Catholic high school in Columbus. He went to school to learn broadcasting, and worked as a newscaster and talk-radio show host in Omaha in 1969.

Hagel first came to work in Washington in 1971. He was chief of staff to Nebraska Rep. John McCollister until 1977.

Contributing: The Associated Press



Source: (c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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