December 21st, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Hagel's defense posture forged by war experience

By Mike Mount

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 there.

Sitting on that helicopter with injuries that would take years to heal, Hagel thought to himself, "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 became a seminal one for the young soldier who volunteered to join the Army and ended up serving a year-long tour in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, considered the most violent time of that war.

If former Senator Chuck Hagel gets nominated to be the next Secretary of Defense, it won't be a smooth ride to confirmation.

Getting to the Pentagon will 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 administration has not said he is the president's choice.

He faced new opposition late this week from gay rights groups, who were strong supporters of President Obama's election campaigns, for a comment Hagel made in 1998 in which Hagel questioned whether a nominee for ambassadorship was suitable because he was "openly aggressively gay."

Should he be selected to replace Leon Panetta though, he will bring to the Pentagon a distinct bias towards avoiding armed conflict.

He served, by a clerical mistake, side by side with his younger brother and earned two Purple Hearts, one of those for saving his brother's life. The second one was for shrapnel he took in the chest while on patrol with his brother by his side, who saved his older brother's life while patching up his wound.

His time in Vietnam would end up forging his thoughts about combat for the rest of his life, and defining him on Capitol Hill as a U.S. Senator with an independent streak often sidestepping 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 in his 2006 biography.

Hagel used his Vietnam experience when he became an early critic of the Iraq war including the plat to putting more troops into that country for the surge, 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 for the Senator to move up the ranks to any power position.

Fleischer: Hagel would be 'a disaster'

But while serving in the Senate he became close with then Senator Obama, and they seemed to find common ground on thoughts about the use of military force and Hagel's fairly moderate approach to foreign relations issues. Obama also appreciated Hagels willingness to buck his own party.

The two of them and Sen. Jack Reed also toured parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, in 2008.

"It was an extraordinary trip," Sen. Jack Reed told Security Clearance. "There was just an exchange of ideas about the region and I think the president was also impressed with not only his 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 then Sen. Obama.

Hagel and Obama also have common ground when it comes to Iran. Both of them believe in a dialogue to be open between the U.S. and its adversary, though Hagel as argued against sanctions for Iran, 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.

And this past 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, which did not leave 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 Clinton.

He has also opposed efforts to isolate militant groups like Hamas, which has also 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 confirmed, Hagel will face the challenge of closing the final chapter on the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and oversee the continued footprint of a smaller U.S. training force there.

Hagel has been critical on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. In 2009 he opposed President Obama's move to surge 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, 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 U.S. to stop its "nation-building" there. In 2010 Hagel argued, "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 said. "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," he told the Washington Diplomat after leaving his seat in the Senate.

Hagel has also spent time in Pakistan and co-chaired a 2009 Atlantic Council report with Sen. John Kerry that concluded 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.

But Hagel's most immediate issue he will face if he is nominated will be the future of the Pentagon's budget.

Just days until the U.S. reaches the edge of the "fiscal cliff" where the Defense Department faces a half-trillion dollar cut on top of already planned $500 billion in cuts, Hagel believes the Pentagon's budget is overweight.

"The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated," Hagel said in a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times. "So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down," Hagel said.

"Members of Congress who will be look at the budget that he will have to try and manage the downsizing of, so having great lines of communications, respect with members of Congress is going to be key for him," Cohen said.

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  35. Jerry Levy

    What is not stated here is that in the face of Iranian terrorism throughout the Middle East (and worldwide), and Iran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, Hagel wanted to implement the failed policies tried with the Soviets. He wants to implement NO sanctions for their bad behavior and wants to "engage" the mullahs (not their subjigated people) on their terms to find some sort of accommodation-that will probably require the U.S. to show weakness and put aside our convictions about freedom and democracy. Hagel also wanted to "engage" Assad too. He is the last person we need for any role in defense.

    December 22, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Reply
    • massoud

      Are you working for AIPAC ?

      December 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
      • Some User

        He could be one of those 'paid shills'.

        February 23, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  36. JohnParryJones

    I was in the military for three years. I've never considered myself to be a military/defense expert just because I served. But somehow congressmen who have served always seem to imply their service qualifies them to be experts. Hogwash. Go to West Point. Retire with fours stars 30 years later. You're an expert. Not these pretentious congressmen.

    December 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  37. John the Historian

    Isn't it funny the Republicans hate this guy just because he was intelligent enought not to want to the war of choice in Iraq. Hope all the Neocons are eating crow. They will not get their war in Iran, a country of 80 million people. Hell the US could not handle the 29 million people in Iraq with 160,000 troops and a suicide attack every day. Hope President Cheney goes to Iraq someday to look for his weapons of mass destruction that Rumsfled as deputy defense secretary sold Saddam his friend during the Reagan years. No to wars of proxy. War is only death, destruction, disease, and horror. Want a war go enlist in some mercenary army and don't be a draft dodger like Willard, Bush II, and Rush.

    December 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  38. massoud

    Time for the neocon smear campaign to rear their ugly head

    December 21, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  39. Eric

    * I get the impression that Hagel will allow (if Obama agrees) Iran to have nuclear weapons. Our foreign policy will have to be "containment" for a unknown number of administrations in the future.
    * We will need to be sucessful at it 100% of the time with no room for error. It is going to be hard to be 100% successful 100% of the time.

    (Hagel has even argued against sanctions too)

    December 21, 2012 at 9:38 am | Reply
    • path

      since north korea has the bomb how many American soldiers have died because of this bomb? zero, how many wounded? zero, traumatsés? zero. how much trillions spent? zero

      if bush had attacked north korea, it would have get the bomb today anyway, and thousands of americans soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Korean killed and wounded and another trillion to the debt.
      for nothing

      December 21, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
      • Thinker23

        You remind me the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who triumfantly brought peace to Britain in 1938...

        December 22, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  40. llatpoh

    What a shocker that O would want someone who supports Hamas. At least he's consistent regarding which side he is on.

    December 21, 2012 at 8:49 am | Reply
  41. Larry Trickel

    Ask Nebraska what they think of Hagel. He told them what they wanted to hear to get elected and then did the opposite.

    December 21, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
    • micarlhay

      I am a Nebraskan. Kind of like asking Americans about voting for GW Bush. They wish they could take that one back. Hagel is perfect.

      December 21, 2012 at 8:57 am | Reply
      • Simpson

        Sorry to disappoint you but the alternatives to Bush43 AlGore and JohnKerry are two of the biggest phonies on the political scene and either of them would have been a total disaster for the nation .... the economy under Bush43 was destroyed by the vestige of long-endured Democratic programs which loaded the national debt beyond comprehension....Democrats such as Barney Frank and Chris Dodd bear the bulk of the blame for the crashing of the financial and real estate can blame Bush43, but an honest representation of history will evidence that he was victimized by the progressive agenda of the 1970's and onward.

        December 21, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  42. Gail

    Why should we care what pro-Israeli groups think about Chuck Hagel? Last time I checked, this was the United States, not a subsiderary of Israel. Chuck Hagel is a tried and true solider (who fought for America) he knows and understands that war is evil and wrecks the lives of all concerned. He will NOT engage in nation building and he will be a clear headed advisor to the President when it comes to when and if we should put our young men and women in harms was. If the pro-Israeli faction in this counrty are so opposed to him, may I suggest they go to Israel and fight for "their" country, maybe they could buy one of the apartments being built in the disputed area. Sounds like a great place for Israel loving folks.

    December 21, 2012 at 8:12 am | Reply
  43. scarls

    He is a great candidate. Unfortunately, Israel will never allow it. They dictate our foreign policy (through the money and power of AIPAC). Yes, Israel is an ally. But, when what it is in the best interest of an ally is at odds with what is in the best interest of the US, any red-blooded American patriot will choose what is best for the US. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups disagree and throw out the anti-semitic card if you dare question our unconditional support for Israel. Sorry Mr. Hagel, but you don't stand a chance as long as protecting Israel is the number one priority of our foreign policy.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:22 am | Reply
    • Cugel

      Is it in the US' interest to allow Iran to stall for time with'talks' as it has been doing with Europe, while it moves to getting atom bombs? They're also working on missiles that can reach New York. War may be awful, but sometimes, the alternative is worse. Just ask Neville Chamberlain.

      December 21, 2012 at 8:55 am | Reply
      • massoud

        Did chcken hawk neocon Bill Kristol say that Iran is working on missiles that can reach New York or was it the other chicken hawk Arie Fliescher ?

        December 21, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
      • Steve, New York City

        Cugel – last time I checked, the US has had disastrous results from pre-emptive wars. I really don't think that there's any country out there that's stupid enough to attack us with nukes.

        I totally agree with the idea of tighter sanctions on Iran. However, I am TOTALLY AGAINST the neocons, the AIPAC or other criminal cartels from forcing another ridiculous war onto us. Hagel's loyalty should be to country, not the AIPAC, the NRA or other organizations that expertly manipulate our government. While I agree that Hagel is wrong on Iran sanctions, a defense secretary is a single voice in US foreign policy - and I'd be included to support Hagel's nomination.

        December 21, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Massoud - As a matter of fact, it was the Pentagon report submitted to Congress on 29 June, 2012. The report focused most extensively on Iran’s inventory of ballistic missiles, and warned that Iran may be able to test-fly an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of striking American soil, within three years’ time.

        December 23, 2012 at 8:40 am |
      • massoud

        Thinker 23 -As a matter of fat I do not give a rip what the Pentagon says they have little credibility in my opinion. Has the Pentagon EVER FOUND THE $ 2.3 TRILLION DOLLARS THAT WENT UNACCOUNTED FOR THAT DONALD RUMSFELD ANNOUNCED 2 DAYS PRIOR TO 911 ? Rumsfeld told US Congress 2 days prior to 911 that they could not account for $2.3 Trillion Dollars FACT CHECK THAT Thinker 23 and get back to me.

        December 23, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • path

      it's only up to obama to fight for the secretary he want..... but unfirtunatelly obama has always yielded to the neocons, instead of appointing Hagel and not waste time this idiot leaves polemic swell day after day.
      this is definitely an idiot

      December 21, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
    • Jerry Levy

      I always get a kick out of people who are so confident this tiny Israeli lobby secretly controls our foreign policy. With less than a $1.5 billion lobbying budget, AIPAC can't even deliver the Jewish vote (Jews vote overwhelmingly democrat at every election). Further, the oil, agricultural, and Union lobbies all have budgets of over a half billion dollars for lobbying. The various Arab countries spend over $3 billion in lobbying. But somehow, the conspiracy theorists are positive our senators and congressmen really support the totalitarians on the Arab side and hate the Israeli democracy, but they go ahead and support Israel because they fear the "Israeli lobby." It is an utterly absurd accusation. If this is true, Obama was born in Kenya, the Mayan's were right about the end of the world, and the CIA bombed the World trade center.

      December 22, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
      • massoud

        So you are saying that Neocons had no influence in the US going to war in Iraq who "allegedly" had WMDS and ties to Al Queda ? Ari Fliescher and Paul Wolfowitz were GWB advisors on Iraq amongst others . AIPAC did not lobby US Congressional members to invade Iraq wow talk about revisionist history.

        December 24, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  44. Mark R. Darnell

    If Hagel can withstand the "attacks" from the AIPAC, the ADL, and the rest of the thugs in the Israeli lobby, he could be the most outstanding Secretary of the Defense we've ever had!. How has it come to this?- Where Israel dictates OUR Foreign Policy?!! As allies go- there record is far from unblemished- Pentagon spying (Pollard- and others), the attack on the USS Liberty (seems this little bit of History has been kept out of the public consciousness!), and other controversial hypothesis, don't exactly put our 'friend' Israel in the best light. I hope the man does not capitulate, as many other outspoken critics of Israel have been black-balled into doing. We live in tremulous times, but many people are now availing themselves to the information, and facts that are readily available. Change IS Coming!

    December 21, 2012 at 2:15 am | Reply
    • michaelfury

      December 21, 2012 at 8:00 am | Reply
  45. JohnS

    Agree! Little more to be said other than it would be refreshing to have some that represents America and our servicemen and women rather than either political party!

    December 21, 2012 at 2:03 am | Reply
  46. jean

    There are many reasons Chuch Hagel makes a very bad choice.

    He is a bigot.

    Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) once opposed a nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg because he was “openly aggressively gay,” BuzzFeed reports:

    “Ambassadorial posts are sensitive,” Hagel told to the Omaha World-Herald in 1998, opposing the nomination of philanthropist James Hormel. “They are representing America,” he said. “They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.”

    Some LGBT rights groups are already criticizing the potential selection of Hagel to replaced Leon Panetta.

    Hagel was a long-time supporter of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. In 1999, he told The New York Times, ”The U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment.”

    Hagel is considered one of the finalists to succeed Sec. Leon Panetta at the Defense Department, though sources have told the Free Beacon that Hagel may no longer be the president’s top choice for the spot, as criticism of his potential nomination mounts.

    His comments about the Jewish lobby are very much the voice of a bigot. Just replace NAACP or La Raza to realize how wrong it is to criticize any group for advocating for it's interests.

    Speaking of the NAACP Hagel gets a 17 out of 100 from them because he is an antii-black bigot tha that is against affirmative action.

    The president should endorse someone who represents diversity a Democratic woman would be nice.

    December 21, 2012 at 1:58 am | Reply
    • csmallo

      If that group "advocating it's interests" is advocating against the best interests of the United States then they are very open for criticism. That does most definitely include the NAACP, La Raza, AIPAC, the ADL, and the KKK.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:56 am | Reply
    • rickirs

      Hagel is "an antii-black bigot"? So he is not a black bigot? In any case Obama is considering him for SoD so what's the problem? Hagel would be a great nomination.

      December 21, 2012 at 8:03 am | Reply
    • Jerry Levy

      Because you are against affirmative action, does not make you a bigot. I am so tired of people labeling as "racist" any opinions they disagree with.

      December 22, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Reply
      • massoud

        I agree especially for anyone who disagrees with the influence Israel holds over US Foreign Policy is labeled unjustifiably an anti -semite .

        December 24, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  47. massoud

    Chuck Hagel would be a great Defense Secretary he is a Vietnam Veteran so he knows about war compared to the "chicken hawk" crowd . He brings the right perspective of Foreign Policy and could get us back on track, policing the world, interventions and coups, and nation building has had a negative impact on our Nation in many ways. We need a strong defense but we should not be sticking our nose in all of the global conflicts their are to many and intended results are never reached, not to mention the high costs of blood and treasure that go along with it. It is time to put Americas interests first in these precarious times. If the US is to be going into foreign conflicts it should only be if are National Security is at risk and no ones else. Their should be Congressional votes and no NATO or UN Coalitions that involve our blood and treasure in foreign entanglements. Dwight D Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military industrial complex in his farewell address as president, and lets face it our Nation is borrowing money and accruing debt at historical levels also as a result of private (bail outs) and public welfare. When the US is involved in NATO or UN interventions coups and wars the majority of blood and treasure is being supplied and funded by us.It is far time we change our interventionist foreign policy as their is no doubt it has had a overall negative impact on our Nation.

    December 20, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Reply

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