From his lonely position as an early Republican critic of the Iraq war, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel sometimes lectured his more timid Senate colleagues. “If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes,” he told them.
Now Democratic President Barack Obama, putting together his team for his second term, is poised to chose the intensely independent thinker to run the Pentagon. If Hagel is confirmed by the Senate, he will have to oversee the withdrawal of U.S. troops from another war zone - Afghanistan - and grapple with spending cuts.
The formal announcement of Hagel’s nomination could come as early as Monday, Democratic Party sources said.
A social conservative and strong internationalist who co-chaired John McCain’s failed Republican presidential campaign back in 2000, Hagel might seem an unlikely pick for Obama’s Secretary of Defense, were it not for his opposition to the Iraq war launched by former President George W. Bush. That war was the issue on which Obama also rose to national prominence.
Four years ago, Obama said Iraq was not the only matter where he held similar views with Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran who was also once touted as presidential material.
“He’s a staunch Republican, but Chuck and I agree almost on every item of foreign policy,” Obama said in August 2008, a month after taking Hagel with him on a tour of Iraq.
Since his name emerged last year as a candidate for the Pentagon, some Republicans contend that Hagel has at times opposed Israel’s interests. His critics note he voted against U.S. sanctions on Iran and made disparaging remarks about the influence of what he called a “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
Hagel has also been critical of the size of the American military, telling the Financial Times in 2011 that the Defense Department was “bloated” and needed “to be pared down.”
Hagel served two terms in the Senate, representing the state of Nebraska, and left in 2008. He is now a professor at Georgetown University, but also serves as co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a member of the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board.