Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is said to be President Barack Obama’s top candidate to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary.
Panetta, 74, has said his intention is to leave early next year. Hagel, 66, is a former senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran. Reports are that he could be nominated as early as this month, though he has long held controversial stances – and has been criticized for them – on Israel, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Hagel, who is currently chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, left the Senate after two terms four years ago for a teaching post at Georgetown University. In the Senate, he butted heads with top Republicans like then-President George W. Bush on foreign policy and his description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil” in 2002; and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran with whom he hasn’t been too friendly with since they fell out over the Iraq war. (McCain was for it, Hagel against.)
A closer look shows exactly why Obama would tap Hagel, a Republican but one who has strayed far from GOP orthodoxy, for the job of running America's defense establishment.
An Ally In Cutting Defense Spending? Check
After nearly 12 years at war, the U.S. is looking to get its troops out of Afghanistan soon and focus on a strategic buildup in the Pacific and on fighting terrorism in Africa. A Secretary Hagel, with his military credentials, would do just that and not push back against Obama when the president calls for defense spending cuts and paring down the military.
Hagel told the Financial Times last year that he think the Defense Department is “bloated.”
“I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down,” he said. “I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time.”
Hagel has expressed the view that he doesn’t see the defense budget as a jobs program. Republicans have argued against Pentagon cuts out of worry that they would hinder America’s ability to defend itself and its allies. But lawmakers have already enacted $500 billion in military cuts to take effect automatically at the end of the year as part of the "fiscal cliff," if an agreement to forestall them is not reached by the end of the year.
According to Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, a Hagel tenure at the Pentagon would force Republicans to take stock of their positions: “If they agree with Obama, then they have nothing that distinguishes them on foreign policy,” he said. “Hagel is the kind of Republican who is comfortable with Obama’s foreign policy.”
Easy Confirmation? Check (Possibly)
Besides finding a close ally in Hagel when approaching lawmakers regarding defense budget, Obama would get credit from “choosing someone nominally Republican and a member of the Washington establishment,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly, who is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also added that Hagel would get an easy Senate confirmation if he is nominated. GOP senators may call him out on his stances on Israel and Iran, but that would hardly torpedo his chances of getting the job. And senators are usually happy to approve their own colleagues for Cabinet posts, which will also benefit Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass., if he is nominated for secretary of state, as expected soon.
In 2008, when Democrats blamed the GOP for blocking an Iran sanctions bill, the finger was pointed at Hagel, who had called for a U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran. (There hasn't been one for decades.) Years earlier, Hagel also stated that sanctions on Iran and Libya were not effective and had voted in 2001 against a renewal of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act.
But despite the unpopularity of those past actions, Donnelly said, “Senators tend to not vote against their own unless there is a moral or marital problem.”
Would Republicans putt up a fight against his confirmation? Donnelly doesn’t see that happening. “They won’t have much appetite to deny his confirmation,” he said. “[But expect] tough questions on his Iran views."
Military And Political Knowledge? Check
Not one to speculate on whether Hagel will get the nod, Michael O'Hanlon, the director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, says he is considered very experienced, possessing the requisite military and political knowledge.
The war veteran served as an infantryman and earned two Purple Hearts, among other decorations. In politics, Hagel's positions have also included a congressional staffer, a lobbyist and an organizer for the successful Ronald Reagan presidential campaign. In 1981, Reagan gave Hagel to nod to serve as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. That nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Hagel was elected to the Senate from Nebraska in 1996 and 2002 and retired in 2008.
O'Hanlon, who specializes in U.S. defense strategy and American foreign policy, isn't too interested in the controversies surrounding Hagel's unconventional views. Instead, he wonders if others find Hagel as someone who is trying to change policies after seeing that their initial failures.
"Is he flexible enough to adopt to new information?" O'Hanlon asked, adding that is where the debate should be going. "I don't know if he will get the nod or not. If he gets the nod, it will be an interesting debate."
"Republicans shouldn't oppose Hagel because he comes from a different place than they do," he added. "On the issue of whether his judgment seems strong and reasonable, that's where we should have the debate. Get more details on how he makes his decisions."