Obama pick for Pentagon shaped by combat in Vietnam
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
WASHINGTON, Jan 7: Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator set to be nominated the next US defense secretary, is a decorated Vietnam veteran who will bring a skeptical eye to military intervention as well as to the Pentagon´s budget.
Hagel, 66, is known for a fiercely independent streak and a tendency to speak bluntly, falling out with his fellow Republicans over the Iraq war.
If confirmed by the Senate as Pentagon chief, Hagel will have to manage major cuts to military spending while wrapping up the US war effort in Afghanistan and preparing for worst-case scenarios in Iran or Syria.
Hagel will likely face a rough reception in his confirmation hearings from his fellow Republicans, some of whom accuse him of harboring hostility towards Israel while being naive when it comes to dealing with Iran.
Although Hagel had a mostly conservative record as a senator, his Republican colleagues have never forgiven him for his outspoken criticism of ex-president George W. Bush´s handling of the Iraq war.
He called the administration´s effort at the time "beyond pitiful" and when Bush planned a surge of additional troops in 2006, Hagel said it was "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it´s carried out."
Born in North Platte, Nebraska, Hagel grew up in a poor family, working at odd jobs starting at age nine to help put food on the table and stepping in to protect his mother from a sometimes abusive, alcoholic father.
In Vietnam, Hagel served as an infantry squad leader and saw combat first-hand in the jungles of the Mekong Delta, earning two Purple Hearts after suffering shrapnel wounds to his chest and burns to his face. He still has some shrapnel fragments lodged in his chest.
He and his brother, Tom, served in the same unit and each saved the other´s life in separate, harrowing incidents.
Tom stanched the bleeding from a chest wound Hagel had suffered. A few weeks later, Hagel pulled his unconscious brother to safety from an armored personnel carrier after it had struck a land mine.
The searing experience in Vietnam has stayed with him, shaping his approach to national security and leading him to view military action as a last resort, after all diplomatic tools have been exhausted.
Upon returning from Vietnam, Hagel held an array of jobs, including as a radio reporter, before landing a position on the staff of a Nebraskan lawmaker in Congress, where he excelled.
After a stint at the Veterans Administration, and a clash with its chief, Hagel eventually got in on the ground floor of America´s cell phone industry, becoming a multi-millionaire.
Moving back to Nebraska, Hagel was elected to the Senate in 1996 and again in 2002. He considered running for president in the 2008 race but opted against a bid, partly because of his strained relations with the party´s leadership and his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war.
He was later mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate with Obama, who he befriended during his time in the Senate.
Although he mostly shares Obama´s views on foreign policy, Hagel has not hesitated to express his differences with the US president, such as when the White House incumbent unveiled a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009.
"I´m not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan," Hagel said the following year. "It´s not sustainable at all. We´re marking time as we slaughter more young people."
If confirmed, Hagel would be the first Vietnam veteran to hold the top job at the Pentagon.
In his typical straight-shooting fashion, Hagel has called the Defense Department "bloated" and said that "the Pentagon needs to be pared down."
The Washington Post, which endorsed Obama for president, has come out against Hagel´s nomination, saying he is out of sync with the political "mainstream" on the budget and how to counter Iran´s nuclear program.
Even some Democrats have reservations about Hagel due to comments he made in the 1990s criticizing the choice of an openly gay man as an ambassador. He has since expressed regret over the remarks.
Hagel´s "tell-like-it-is" style has some lawmakers concerned that he lacks the tact to head up the country´s military machine, according to Michael O´Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
"Some will question the way he expresses his views or reaches his judgments, not just the positions he winds up taking," O´Hanlon, who supported the troop surge in Iraq, told AFP.