• Photo showcase: Chuck Hagel through the years
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If President Barack Obama nominates former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel this week as secretary of defense, he'd be choosing a Cabinet member who shares his cautious view of military action in places such as Iran and is willing to cut the Pentagon budget.
But Obama's expected choice wouldn't come with proven expertise in running the vast military bureaucracy at a time of budget cutbacks. Nor would Hagel, despite being a Republican, bring much bipartisan credibility to the Democratic administration's policies when he discusses them with Congress.
“He's not likely to bring many Republicans along,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who was a national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration. “I think he will struggle more than his supporters in the pundit academic world understand.”
Obama may nominate Hagel, 66, as defense secretary early this week, reports from Washington, D.C., indicate. Word of a possible nomination has triggered a month of harsh criticism of Hagel by some of his former GOP Senate colleagues as well as others, on both the right and the left. He also has strong support, including from a bipartisan group of former government officials, such as former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as retired U.S. ambassadors, generals and admirals.
“Senator Hagel is eminently qualified for the job,” one group of former generals and admirals wrote in an open letter. “He would bring a long-term strategic vision to the job and to the President's Cabinet.”
Much of the public controversy about Hagel's nomination has centered on past comments that critics view as anti-Israel or anti-gay.
Feaver said those issues are a sideshow to the real questions about whether Hagel would be a good secretary of defense — a job that involves not only military and budget matters but also foreign policy concerns.
“The U.S. secretary of defense today is a high-stakes actor in international diplomacy,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel, Crocker said in an open letter in the Wall Street Journal, is an experienced statesman who understands world challenges and would work well with Obama's nominee for secretary of state, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
Crocker said Hagel sees the advantages of a nuanced, strategically patient approach in dealing with the world, using both pressure and support to influence other countries.
Feaver said Hagel's value to the Obama administration would be that he, like the president, favors a restrained approach to using military force. Hagel voted in favor of the Iraq War but later came to oppose it. In the current debate over Iran's development of nuclear weapons, Hagel has said he favors a negotiated solution rather than military intervention.
“Hagel is largely in sync with Obama's world view and may be where Obama's heart is,” Feaver said.
That's one thing Hagel's critics on the right don't like. They favor a more hawkish approach in dealing with Iran, and they were irritated by Hagel's willingness to criticize the Bush administration's policies, including his opposition to sending more troops to Iraq in 2007.
Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, sharply criticized Hagel in a Politico.com column last month, saying that his conflicting statements and votes on Iraq make him “either a gutless dove or a foolish hawk, or maybe a little of both.”
Others, however, note that numerous members of Congress voted — often with some misgivings — to go to war in Iraq and later became critics of the war.
In a recent Baltimore Sun column, former Army officer and CIA analyst Ray McGovern said Hagel is willing to speak out and resist those who are quick to go to war.
“Chuck Hagel is his own man,” McGovern wrote.
If he takes over the Defense Department, Hagel would have to deal with expected budget cuts as America winds down the war in Afghanistan. In September 2011, Hagel said the Pentagon had room to cut.
“The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,” he told the Financial Times. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don't think our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time.”
Hagel would help the Obama administration develop a “strategic narrative” that would mesh the Pentagon budget with a less-interventionist — and thus less costly — approach, Feaver said. The administration's intention, he said, is to make any budget cuts reversible, allowing a quick buildup if a large military budget is needed to meet a new challenge.
“But you need very deft budget and management skills to figure out what to cut and how much to cut,” Feaver said.
Hagel doesn't have the same budget background as some other defense secretaries, including current Secretary Leon Panetta, who formerly headed the Office of Management and Budget. But Feaver suggested that Hagel's foreign policy strength could be balanced by naming a budget expert to the Pentagon's No. 2 position.
If nominated and confirmed, Hagel would become the first former enlisted soldier to ever lead the Pentagon.
Within the Pentagon, some say, Hagel's combat experience in Vietnam would earn him some respect and credibility in dealing with military officials. But they also note that he might face internal Pentagon opposition based on his foreign policy ideas or budget positions.
Crocker, the former ambassador, said Hagel is up to the challenge.
“Mr. Hagel would run the Defense Department; it would not run him,” he said.
Outside the military, meanwhile, Hagel would need all the skills he honed in business and government to handle other issues: negotiating with members of Congress concerned about military-related jobs in their districts, or balancing the relationship between the armed forces and its civilian leadership in the White House.
Hagel could find himself in a political no man's land: a Republican who might be viewed skeptically by others in the Democratic administration, even though he sides with Obama on defense and foreign policy, and a proponent of Obama's policies who could find himself at odds with many of his former GOP colleagues.
That dynamic is likely to show up not only in a Hagel confirmation battle but also in future policy debates.
“He won't have the inside or the outside constituency,” Feaver said. “He'll be a little more of a solo operator.”
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Chuck Hagel's credentials
Hagel's lengthy résumé includes these experiences involving the military, government and foreign policy:
» U.S. Army sergeant, served in Vietnam 1967-68; awarded Purple Heart twice, Army Commendation Medal, Combat Infantryman's Badge, Republic of South Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (three times)
» Chief of staff to U.S. Rep. John Y. McCollister, R-Neb.
» Deputy administrator, U.S. Veterans Administration, 1981-82
» CEO and president of the USO, 1987-1990
» U.S. senator, 1997 to 2009; served on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees
» Chairman, the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, 2009-current
» Co-chairman, President's Intelligence Advisory Board, 2009-current
» Government professor, Georgetown University, 2009-current