When his old buddies in Congress would argue for winning the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., would draw on his experience as a grunt in Vietnam and respond: “Win What?”
Hagel, 66, could now end up having to expand on that enigmatic answer for the Senate Armed Services Committee at confirmation hearings.
Hagel’s name has surfaced more frequently as a possible successor to 72-year-old Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has made no secret of his want to return to his California walnut farm. Hagel was summoned last week for a private meeting at the White House with President Obama.
Obama has proven that he is not opposed to adding a Republican to his cabinet. He kept former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican, on his cabinet when Obama was inaugurated in 2009.
Panetta traveled to Afghanistan this week on what was widely billed as his farewell visit to the war zone, and published reports speculated that he might leave soon after the inauguration in January.
Obama signaled last month that his choice to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State would likely be United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), once considered the frontrunner, was now being looked to succeed Panetta.
But Rice’s prospects for the post at State have dimmed – and Kerry’s have brightened -- in the aftermath of her controversial statements on the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The guarantees of a nasty confirmation fight over Rice from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also raise the prospects for a Hagel nomination at Defense.
Other possible nominees include Michelle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary, and former Sen. Sam Nunn, who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Hagel, considered a centrist Republican, has a lengthy record in his writings, speeches and votes in Congress that mostly put him in line with Obama on a wide range of policy issues from global warming to the cautious projection of U.S. military power.
On foreign policy, Hagel has echoed Clinton on engaging allies and, occassionally, foes, and the need to stress persuasion over confrontation. On spending, Hagel has backed the view of retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the deficit is a national security issue.
Hagel, an Army sergeant in Vietnam who received a Purple Heart, outlined his views on war in a 2009 editorial for the Washington Post on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan now posted on the website of the Atlantic Council think tank, where Hagel serves as chairman.
“Too often in Washington we tend to see foreign policy as an abstraction, with little understanding of what we are committing our country to: the complications and consequences of endeavors,” Hagel said of Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is easy to get into war, not so easy to get out.”
“Accordingly, we cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only ‘winning’ or ‘losing.’ Iraq and Afghanistan are not America's to win or lose,” Hagel wrote. “Win what? We can help them buy time or develop, but we cannot control their fates.”
“There are too many cultural, ethnic and religious dynamics at play in these regions for any one nation to control. For example, the future of Afghanistan is linked directly to Pakistan and what happens in the mountains along their border. Political accommodation and reconciliation in this region will determine the outcome,” Hagel wrote.
Hagel also argued last week for turning down the volume on U.S. policy pronouncements. "We will need to turn our receivers on and our transmitters off,” Hagel said in the keynote address to the Atlantic Council’s forum on “Envisioning 2030: U.S. Strategy for a Post-Western World.”
Should Hagel get the Pentagon nomination, he can likely count on the support of First Lady Michelle Obama in the confirmation process. Hagel has a Portuguese waterdog named Figgie, who came from the same kennel as the Obama’s Portuguese waterdog Bo.