As Washington shifts away from two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cuts the defense budget, it's not an easy time to be running the Pentagon. Hagel "recognizes that some of the decisions we [make] today will have consequences for decades down the road, so we have to get them right," his chief of staff, Mark Lippert, says. Even with budget constraints at home, international challenges loom large, especially the Iranian nuclear threat and the promised military rebalance toward Asia and the Pacific. So Hagel ordered a sweeping strategy review to ensure that decisions about the Pentagon's resources do not undermine President Obama's strategy or, as Lippert puts it, result in "some kind of resource mismatch that will have decades of consequences."
Hagel, 66, who took the Pentagon's helm in February, is the first enlisted combat veteran to hold the job, having volunteered for Vietnam and served alongside his brother Tom in the Army, where he earned two Purple Hearts and other military honors. Hagel used the GI Bill and graduated from the University of Nebraska. He worked as a Hill staffer before serving as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Reagan, where he pushed for increased benefits for Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange. Hagel's business experience includes cofounding Vanguard Cellular Systems.
Elected to the Senate in 1996, Hagel stayed heavily involved in foreign affairs until he left Congress in 2009, but he still had a rocky confirmation hearing after Obama tapped him as Defense secretary. Now he's making engagement with members a priority. "He's got big decisions ahead, and he views Congress as a key player," Lippert says, adding that when making policy decisions, Hagel is "deliberate and decisive," quickly earning a reputation for gathering the stakeholders and soliciting opinions—but still arriving at timely conclusions. For instance, Hagel inherited the sequestration morass but "owned" the decision to furlough most civilians for 11 days, Lippert says. In a speech, Hagel explained his process to the workforce. "There wasn't any cowering in the office," Lippert recalls. "There wasn't any trying to distance himself from the decision."