Chuck Hagel may have irked some Nebraska Republicans last fall, but that wasn't on display Wednesday as he basked in a warm welcome on his first trip back home as the nation's defense secretary.
Hagel received plenty of accolades from an audience of about 300 after he delivered a 40-minute speech and took a few questions at the University of Nebraska at Omaha — his alma mater.
It was Hagel's first public appearance in Nebraska since becoming President Obama's secretary of defense and since he riled up the state GOP last fall by backing Democrat Bob Kerrey's failed U.S. Senate bid.
A two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska, Hagel was chosen by Obama to succeed Leon Panetta as head of the nation's military.
One professor in the audience told Hagel he had been “unjustly criticized” about his views on the Middle East during his confirmation battle earlier this year.
Another told Hagel how “utterly proud” he was of the former senator.
And there was no shortage of Republicans in the audience, including Gov. Dave Heineman, former U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter and several state senators.
For his part, Hagel stuck to national issues, leaving politics out of the equation. He spoke in support of Obama's proposal to reduce the nation's nuclear arsenal by 30 percent and of his hope that Afghan officials would enter into peace talks with the Taliban.
He defended the need to cut the military's budget in the face of “fiscal realities.” Such cuts can be made without reducing the nation's military strength, Hagel argued, by achieving savings through “management reforms and restructuring.”
Hagel also argued that in today's world, many of the nation's security problems — such as cyberattacks — cannot be handled by traditional military means.
“A strong, agile and ready military must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits,” said Hagel.
A Vietnam veteran, Hagel graduated from UNO in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in general studies, a program created specifically for veterans after World War II. Returning soldiers received credits for skills learned in the military.
Hagel's Nebraska trip came on the same day that Obama called for a reduction in the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Obama said he would cut that arsenal by one-third if Russia would do the same.
Hagel said a reduction in the nuclear force would not jeopardize America's security, saying the nation will retain enough nuclear weapons to maintain a “credible deterrent” in the face of possible enemies.
“A safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent remains essential to our national security, and we will maintain that capability,” said Hagel.
Not everyone agrees with Hagel.
Both of Nebraska's U.S. senators, Republicans Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, have come out against the proposal, arguing that a “robust nuclear deterrent” has kept America safe for decades.
“The Cold War may be over, but we still face dangerous threats as rogue nations like Iran and North Korea work to develop nuclear arsenals,” Johanns said.
The plan to reduce the nation's nuclear weapons was one reason for Hagel's Nebraska visit.
Hagel said he plans to meet today with Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for the nuclear arsenal, to discuss the possible reduction.
Hagel also touched on Afghanistan and roadblocks to peace in that nation. Earlier this week, U.S. officials had announced peace talks with the Taliban. But those talks were put on hold after Afghan President Hamid Karzai indicated that he would not participate.
Karzai is angry because the Taliban have opened an office in Qatar, which Karzai believes is an affront to his administration and Afghanistan's sovereignty.
Hagel said he is hopeful that the peace talks can be held. He said Karzai needs to participate if they are to lead to peace.
“I think it is worth the risk, but it can't be done without President Karzai, without the people of Afghanistan,” he said.