Hagel's war views forged by Vietnam stint
Former Senator would face tough road to Defense post
If former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is nominated to be the next secretary of defense, it is unlikely that he will have a smooth ride to confirmation.
Leading the Pentagon would mean overcoming an already vocal opposition from pro-Israel groups and others who object to his stance on Iran and Hamas. One group began running ads on Washington-area television stations on Thursday, even though the Obama administration has not offered his name for consideration.
Should he be nominated to replace Leon Panetta, he would bring to the Pentagon a distinct bias against armed conflict forged during the Vietnam War.
Badly burned after his armored personnel carrier hit a land mine in Vietnam, Hagel sat in a medical evacuation helicopter thinking of the horrors he had experienced during his time in combat.
"If I ever get out, if I ever can influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war," Hagel would later tell his biographer, Charlyne Berens.
The moment was seminal for the young soldier who volunteered to join the Army and ended up serving a yearlong tour in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, considered the most violent period in that war.
Hagel served side by side with his younger brother because of a clerical error. He earned two Purple Hearts, one of which was for saving his brother's life. The second Purple Heart was for shrapnel he took in the chest while on patrol with his brother by his side; his brother saved his life by patching up his wound.
Hagel's time in Vietnam forged his thoughts about combat for the rest of his life, earning him a reputation on Capitol Hill as a senator with an independent streak that meant he was sometimes at odds with his Republican colleagues.
"Not that I'm a pacifist -- I'm a hard-edged realist, I understand the world as it is -- but war is a terrible thing. There's no glory, only suffering," he is quoted as saying in his 2006 biography, "Moving Forward."
Hagel used his Vietnam experience when he criticized the Iraq war early on, including the surge, the plan to put more troops into that country, calling it, "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out."
Those decisions did not sit well with his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, and it hurt his chances to move up the ranks to power positions.
While serving in the Senate, Hagel became close with then-Sen. Barack Obama, and they seemed to find common ground about the use of military force and Hagel's fairly moderate approach to foreign relations issues. Obama also appreciated Hagel's willingness to buck his own party.
Hagel, Obama and Sen. Jack Reed also toured parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, in 2008.
"It was an extraordinary trip," Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, told Security Clearance. "There was just an exchange of ideas about the region, and I think the president was also impressed with not only (Hagel's) understanding but the questions he raised, not just with the president but with the foreign leaders that we met," Reed said of the conversation between Hagel and Obama.
Hagel and Obama also have common ground when it comes to Iran. Both believe in open dialogue with Iran, though Hagel has argued against sanctions for the country, while the president has tightened the screws on Iran with tougher sanctions.
"By refusing to engage Iran, we are perpetuating dangerous geo-political unpredictabilities," Hagel said in a 2007 speech. "Our refusal to recognize Iran's influence does not decrease its influence, but rather increases it. Engagement creates dialogue and opportunities to identify common interests, demonstrate America's strengths, as well as make clear disagreements," he said.
In September, Hagel co-authored an opinion piece in the Washington Post backing the idea of "keeping all options on the table" for stopping Iran's nuclear program.
"Since the consequences of a military attack are so significant for U.S. interests, we seek to ensure that the spectrum of objectives, as well as potential consequences, is understood," it read. The piece did not rule out the possibility of using military force.
"That's not going to be his view as far as dealing with them in this position as secretary of defense. The president will tell him, direct him what the policy is," said William Cohen, a former Republican defense secretary who served under President Bill Clinton.
Hagel has also opposed efforts to isolate militant groups such as Hamas, a stance that has inflamed many, including pro-Israeli organizations.
"I don't think its going to be very fruitful to have a separate discussion with Hamas. Unless they give up this notion that they are going to continue to raise warfare against Israel, then I don't see any profit in talking with them, in negotiating with them," Cohen said.
If he is nominated and confirmed, Hagel will face the challenge of closing the final chapter on the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and overseeing the continued footprint of a smaller U.S. training force there.
Hagel has been critical of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. In 2009 he opposed Obama's 30,000-troop surge, telling the National Journal, "I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan." "It's not sustainable at all; I think we're marking time as we slaughter more young people."
Later he called for the United States to stop its "nation-building" there.
"We are where we are today -- going into our 10th year in Afghanistan, our longest war -- because we did take our eye of the ball," he told the Washington Diplomat in 2010 after leaving the Senate. "We really made some big mistakes during that time. I have never believed you can go into any country and nation build, and unfortunately I think that's what we've gotten ourselves bogged down in."
Hagel has also spent time in Pakistan and co-chaired a 2009 Atlantic Council report with Sen. John Kerry that concluded that Pakistan faced, "dire economic and security threats that threaten both the existence of Pakistan as a democratic and stable state and the region as a whole."
"The U.S. also needs to urgently close the "Trust Deficit" between it and Pakistan, with greater exchanges of high-level visits, closer military, intelligence, and economic cooperation," according to the report.
The most immediate issue Hagel would face would be the future of the Pentagon's budget.
Just days before the United States reaches the edge of the "fiscal cliff" in which the Defense Department faces the loss of $500 billion on top of an already planned $500 billion in cuts, Hagel believes the Pentagon's budget is too big.
"The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated," Hagel said in a September interview with the Financial Times. "So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down."
If Hagel becomes secretary of defense, he would have to have "great lines of communication" with members of Congress, who will oversee the Pentagon's smaller budget, Cohen said.
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