Back at the 2004 Republican convention, when then-Sen. Chuck Hagel was weighing whether to run for president, he paid a call on the Iowa delegation. His obligatory joke about his devotion to ethanol went over well. But then, to the puzzlement of some in the room, he started talking to his conservative breakfast audience about the United Nations and the need for multilateralism in tackling world problems.
Needless to say, that wasn’t quite what we were hearing from the convention stage, or for that matter from anyone else in the GOP. Hagel didn’t run for president. But as it turns out, his remarks ended up laying groundwork for a different kind of future--as a potential Defense secretary in the Obama administration.
There are well-known controversies associated with Hagel’s expected nomination, involving everything from climate change and gay rights to Israel, Iraq, and Iran. But unlike the case of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who withdrew as a potential secretary of State nominee amid criticism from Republicans, President Obama is pressing forward with Hagel.
Given the huge battles looming over immigration, the national debt and other issues, I urged Obama not to pick a fight over Rice. What’s different about Hagel? Here are six possibilities:
- Obama does not want to be seen as caving twice to GOP attacks, Rice followed by Hagel. More important, he had a solid alternative for secretary of State in Sen. John Kerry. Hagel is unique in several ways, among them that he is a decorated Vietnam War veteran. The two other top candidates for Defense secretary, Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy, did not serve in the military.
- Hagel would be a solid ally at the Pentagon. Obama has had his share of tensions with the military, as many accounts have made clear, including retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new memoir and the Rolling Stone article that led to his resignation. Hawks in Congress have also been highly critical of Obama. Hagel would be a counterweight to demands for more troops and more intervention around the world, particularly in Iran.
- Hagel shares Obama's caution about military intervention. Although he voted to authorize an invasion of Iraq, Hagel had reservations and later became a sharp critic of the war. All indications are he would be supportive now if Obama decides to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan more quickly than planned. Immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, Hagel said that Obama has “got to start heading toward the exits." The pursuit of bin Laden and al-Qaida was "the reason we invaded Afghanistan” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hagel told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star, not the pursuit of the Taliban. "We have lost our purpose, our objective. We are in a universe of unpredictables and uncontrollables," he said.
- Hagel would add a tinge of bipartisanship to Obama’s Cabinet. He angered many Republicans with his vociferous objections to the Iraq war, declined to back GOP nominee John McCain in 2008 and criticized last year's Republican hopefuls for being in “race to say who would bomb Iran first.” Still, his overall record in Congress was conservative. In 2007, when Hagel was still weighing a presidential bid, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene told The Washington Times that Hagel is “bright, decent and conservative on almost all issues.” He said that Hagel’s lifetime ACU rating was over 85, “and we consider anyone who scores 80 or above a fairly reliable conservative.”
- Obama and Hagel like and trust one another. They traveled together to Iraq in 2008, and Hagel defended him that year against campaign-trail attacks. “Obama and I got to know each other pretty well in the Senate even though he wasn’t there very long,” Hagel said last year in an interview with al-Monitor, an English-language website covering the Middle East. “I have the highest regard for him in every way. I think he’s one of the finest, most decent individuals I’ve ever known, and one of the smartest.”
- Senators are sometimes inclined to give deference to their own in a confirmation process. But Hagel's blunt run in public life has provoked discomfort and dismay among Republicans and Democrats alike. The former senator from Nebraska has a lot of reassuring and persuading to do before he can count on winning that deference from former colleagues and others in the chamber he left four years ago.