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Hagel for Defense?
How the former Nebraska senator has won favor with the Obama administration.

Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel

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Eliana Johnson

Republican Chuck Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, is supposedly on the short list to succeed Secretary Leon Panetta at the Department of Defense, and he is reportedly being vetted by the Obama administration. This should be no surprise: Hagel has been putting himself in position for a top cabinet post and has warmed noticeably to the Democratic party over the past four years.

On November 1, just five days before this fall’s election, Hagel flew to Omaha, Neb., where he endorsed Democrat Bob Kerrey over Republican Deb Fischer in their narrowing Senate race. “There are a number of Hagel loyalists for whom that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Sam Fischer, a Nebraska Republican operative (Sam is Deb Fischer’s nephew).

“He doesn’t do much or have much connection with Nebraska anymore,” says another prominent Republican operative in the state. In fact, Hagel, now a Virginia resident and a professor at Georgetown University, is no longer registered to vote in his home state. Nebraska Republican party chairman Mark Fahleson says he considers Hagel’s endorsement “an attempt to curry favor with the Obama administration.” He points out that Hagel, on the morning he flew to Omaha to throw his weight behind Kerrey, had a phone conversation with Vice President Joe Biden. “We have no idea what they talked about,” Fahleson says suggestively.

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And Fahleson is not alone. Republican Nebraska senator Mike Johanns has labeled the Kerrey endorsement part of a campaign for a cabinet position. “[Hagel’s] been clear he’d love to be in the administration,” Johannes said last month. And, though Johanns called Hagel “one of my closest friends in politics,” he told the Associated Press that the endorsement was “a step in [Hagel’s] path to try to build those bona fides that he is truly an Obama person and deserves a place in his cabinet.” Responding to this comment during a press conference on the day of the endorsement, Hagel said that Johanns “doesn’t know anything about who I am.”

In 2010, Hagel further rankled Republicans by endorsing Democrat Joe Sestak in his Senate race against Republican Pat Toomey. According to the Washington Post, which claimed Hagel was “auditioning for a cabinet position,” the move was as personal as it was ideological: “The more he can show a willingness to put party aside to do what he believes is the right thing, the more attractive he will be to President Obama and his inner circle.”

Whatever the motives, Hagel’s Fischer endorsement in particular marked his increasing coziness with the Obama administration, which can be traced to the 2008 campaign. After blasting the Iraq surge as “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam,” Hagel joined then-senator Obama on a trip to Iraq. Though he has said his relationship with Arizona senator John McCain is “pretty deep,” he refused to give an official endorsement. Throughout the campaign, he didn’t do the McCain campaign any favors. “I’m very upset with John and some of the things he’s been saying,” Hagel said in May 2008. The following month, he indicated he would consider accepting a vice-presidential offer from Senator Obama. “Why wouldn’t you?” he said.

Since 2009, Hagel has served as co-chairman of Obama’s Presidential Intelligence Advisory Board, which offers the president feedback on U.S. intelligence operations. While Hagel’s courtship of the Obama administration seems to be paying off, sources tell NRO that his nomination would signal the direction of the administration’s foreign policy, particularly with regard to Iran. Hagel has promoted unconditional engagement with the regime since 2001, and he voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. “This is someone who will be extremely skeptical of the idea that, if push comes to shove, we should use military force against Iran,” a senior congressional aide says. “Fairly or not,” he says, “if Senator Hagel is nominated by the president to be secretary of defense, it will be broadly viewed as a signal that the United States is not going to use military force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”

 

Some also question his suitability for a top national-security post in terms of temperament. A former Senate staffer, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, says that installing Hagel as defense chief would be a bad move both for Hagel and for the nation. Though Hagel voted for the Iraq War, he became one of its most vocal critics, calling President Bush’s handling of the war “beyond pitiful,” “beyond embarrassing,” and “in the zone of dangerous.” The former staffer indicated that Hagel is so reluctant to send troops into harm’s way that it would inhibit his performance on the job. A Vietnam veteran, Hagel feels tremendous empathy with American soldiers, and he has accused fellow lawmakers of deploying troops in a cavalier manner.

But leaving aside the rumors that Hagel may get the nod for secretary of defense, he apparently aspires to another position entirely: president of the World Bank. According to the former Senate staffer, that’s what he’s always wanted to do, and Hagel is actually better suited to a behind the scenes role that allows him to avoid day-to-day scrutiny. But for all the desire to avoid attention, in the coming weeks, he may find himself in the spotlight once again.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

Editor’s Note: This article has been changed since its original posting.



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