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Chuck Hagel, likely nominee to lead Pentagon

By Lolita C. Baldor

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Feb. 21, 2007, file photo, then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks during an appearance at Bellevue University, in Bellevue, Neb.

Nati Harnik, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is a contrarian Republican moderate and decorated Vietnam combat veteran who is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

As President Barack Obama's likely nominee for defense secretary, Hagel has another credential important to the president: a personal relationship with Obama, forged when they were in the Senate and strengthened during overseas trips they took together.

Hagel, 66, has for weeks been the front-runner for the Pentagon's top job, four years after leaving behind a Senate career in which he carved out a reputation as an independent thinker and blunt speaker. An announcement on his nomination was expected Monday.

"I do think Obama's done a good job overall. There are a lot of things I don't agree with him on; he knows it," Hagel told the foreign policy website Al-Monitor last March.

Wounded during the Vietnam War, Hagel backed the Iraq war, but later became a fierce and credible critic of the Bush administration's war policies, making routine trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He opposed President George W. Bush's plan to send an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq — a move that has been credited with stabilizing the chaotic country — as "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out."

While Hagel supported the Afghanistan war resolution, over time he has become more critical of the decade-plus conflict, with its complex nation-building effort.

Often seeing the Afghan war through the lens of his service in Vietnam, Hagel has declared that militaries are "built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations." In a radio interview this year, he spoke broadly of the need for greater diplomacy as the appropriate path in Afghanistan, noting that "the American people want out" of the war.

In an October interview with the online Vietnam Magazine, Hagel said he remembers telling himself in 1968 in Vietnam, "If I ever get out of this and I'm ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war."

If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta has made it clear he intends to leave early this year, but has not publicly discussed the timing of his departure. He took the Pentagon job in July 2011.

At the same time, Obama has nominated one of Hagel's former Senate colleagues, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, for the job of secretary of state.

To political and defense insiders, Obama's preference for Hagel makes sense.

The former senator shares many of the same ideals of Obama's first Pentagon leader, Republican Robert Gates. When Obama became president in 2009, he asked Gates to remain as defense secretary. Both Hagel and Gates talk of the need for global answers to regional conflicts and an emphasis on so-called soft power, including economic and political aid, to bolster weak nations.

"A Hagel nomination signals an interest in, and a commitment to continuing a bipartisan approach to national security," said David Berteau, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said Hagel's two terms in the Senate, before he retired in 2009, spanned the latter years of the post-Cold War military drawdown and the post-Sept. 11 buildup. "From a budget point of view he has seen both ends of the spectrum and that gives him a good perspective to start from."

Hagel's possible selection has been met with initial praise from key members of the Senate, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who said Hagel would be "terrific."

But Republicans have said he faces tough questions, with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham declaring Hagel would be "the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation's history."

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