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A decorated Vietnam vet, Chuck Hagel combines experience in war with skepticism over turning to military solutions where diplomacy might work. Add to those qualifications a tendency to speak his mind (after using it), and the former Republican senator from Nebraska seems uniquely placed to lead the Department of Defense in 2013.
In Hagel, President Obama has someone well equipped to help trim the defense budget to rational size. Consider that defense spending has doubled since 9/11. The United States spends more on defense than the next 10 countries put together.
A supporter of international cooperation, Hagel doesn't think we should be policing the world alone. And unlike George W. Bush's architects of the Iraq War, Hagel expressed well-placed humility in our ability to understand, much less reorder, the Muslim world. Even as Hagel supported sending American troops to Iraq early on, he warned, "We should not be seduced by the expectations of dancing in the streets."
Hagel's internationalism would have fit comfortably in an older Republican tradition. But his sharp distaste for the Iraq War, its rationale and its execution generated scathing accusations of disloyalty from Bush allies and the neocons. And though ordinary Americans joined his critiques, the Republican leadership did not.
In the recent campaign, Mitt Romney backed additional military interventions and called for even higher defense spending. (He oddly justified the latter as a means to create jobs. As opposed to spending more on roads or building schools?)
Hagel follows in the footsteps of an earlier Nebraska original, George W. Norris. A progressive Republican of the early 20th century, Norris supported Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and helped create the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Hagel probably would not have gone there, having opposed the Medicare drug benefit as an expansion of government.) Norris also attacked Republican presidents with abandon.
Hagel was raised in several small (some of them minuscule) towns in Nebraska. Living among few people makes each one more precious. Though much valued by the Sunday talk shows for his homegrown opinions, he seemed most comfortable in little towns separated by sweeping open landscape. After I wrote a column praising the lonely grandeur of Nebraska's Sand Hills, Hagel sent me a handwritten note of appreciation, ending with, "Incidentally, I grew up in the Sand Hills."
Hagel has said some imprudent things, but there's only one reason for concern - his past lack of enthusiasm for tough economic sanctions on Iran. His opposition to an openly gay appointee was unfortunate, but he's since joined the 21st century in that regard. He misspoke in referring to the leading Israel lobby as the "Jewish lobby" - the lobby includes many non-Jews and irritates many who are Jews.
His statement in a 2006 interview that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" sounded borderline anti-Semitic to some. Well, the lobby does intimidate many in Washington, but that does not preclude a close relationship between Israel and the United States.
Another remark - "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator" - drew controversy, though it shouldn't have. In any case, that's the way Hagel talks when expressing independence. He also famously said, "Nothing in my oath of office says, 'I pledge allegiance to the Republican Party and President Bush."'
And so who is Hagel? He is an adult, and a more adult relationship with the rest of the world, Israel included, would be welcome. Not a man who needs to be backslapped, he appears incorruptible and therefore a threat in the eyes of many defense contractors.
Senators from both parties will question him sharply. But if Hagel finds religion on the wisdom of tough economic sanctions against Iran, he could be an ideal secretary of defense.