(CNN) — He forged his views of war and the military as a young man in mine-plagued fields of Vietnam. Now Chuck Hagel may become the first Vietnam veteran and first enlisted soldier to serve as U.S. defense secretary.
He would also be one of the few Pentagon chiefs ever to have been wounded in war, President Barack Obama said in announcing his selection on Monday to take over for outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Obama said Senate confirmation of the former Nebraska senator would be “historic.”
But for Hagel, a Republican, the road from nomination to confirmation is packed with obstacles — political landmines that could derail the effort.
Until Obama’s announcement confirming weeks of speculation over his nomination, Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper in his home state of Nebraska that he had been “hanging out there in no-man’s land unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions” about his record.
Now, he said, he has “an opportunity to set the record straight.”
‘The leader our troops deserve’
“Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve,” the president said, calling him a “patriot” who fought alongside his brother in Vietnam — and each saved the other. Hagel still “bears the scars” from the battles “he fought in our name,” Obama said.
“He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud is something that we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”
Hagel, 66, said in return that he was “honored by your trust and confidence in me and not unmindful of the immense responsibilities that go with it.”
Praising troops who serve with “such dignity and selflessness,” Hagel expressed support for military families as well, specifically those “who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war” in Afghanistan.
He vowed to work to “strengthen our country’s alliances and advance global freedom, decency and humanity” in the effort to “build a better world for all mankind.”
The next defense chief will oversee the winding down of the war in Afghanistan and proposals to cut the military budget as well as manage other changes to address national security challenges. Along with Hagel on Monday, Obama nominated John Brennan to head the CIA.
Noting that Hagel is a Republican, Obama, a Democrat, said the selection “represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington.”
But much of the GOP establishment begged to differ.
“He has long severed his ties with the Republican Party,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said Sunday. Graham called the selection “an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”
Questions over Hagel’s support of Israel are just one of the controversies swirling around him. Numerous concerns could lay the groundwork for sparks at Senate confirmation hearings.
“Let’s just say if Chuck Hagel is nominated,” CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley said Sunday, “set your TiVo for the hearings.”
Sen. Carl Levin, who will chair those hearings as head of the Armed Services Committee, praised Hagel’s qualifications and said the panel would give “prompt and careful” consideration to his nomination.
Some flashpoints that his critics point to are the same ones that his vocal supporters like.
Hagel has said he favored U.S. negotiations with Iran and opposed increased sanctions. He has supported Israel entering negotiations with Hamas, though also insisted Hamas end terrorism and accept Israel’s right to exist.
And he has criticized U.S. policy on Afghanistan, including a 2009 “surge” of 30,000 additional troops. If he becomes defense secretary, Hagel will face the challenge of ending that U.S.-led war and overseeing a smaller training force in the country.
But the controversies surrounding Hagel aren’t just about his policy positions. They’re also about his views.
Some are bothered by a comment he made in 1998 about an ambassadorial candidate being “aggressively gay” — which he recently apologized for. And in a 2007 interview, he said a “Jewish lobby intimidated lawmakers” — sparking heated criticism. A rabbi in Hagel’s home state insists he is “a friend of Israel.”
Graham told CNN he believes that if confirmed, Hagel “would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, said that he believes “Republicans are spoiling for a fight.”
The rhetoric over Hagel on both sides is ratcheting up.
Past controversies have led presidents to pull some nominations. But the bumpy road ahead is unlikely to faze Hagel.
“Chuck Hagel is not afraid of challenge — or risk,” his biographer, Charlyne Berens, wrote in 2006.
In an exclusive interview Monday with the Journal Star, Hagel said critics have “completely distorted” his record.
He emphasized his “unequivocal, total support for Israel” and support for tough international economic sanctions against Iran, the paper reported.
There is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel,” he insisted.
“All I ask is a fair hearing, and I will get that. I am very much looking forward to having a full, open, transparent hearing about my qualifications and my record.”
Praise from Powell, criticism from Iraq vet
Gen. Colin Powell, a fellow Vietnam veteran who served as secretary of state under the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, announced his “wholehearted” endorsement.
“Chuck displays his courage in many ways. You can always count on him to analyze a difficult situation and take a position that reflects his best judgment. I believe that more than ever we need that kind of independent and bold leader who thinks in and out of the box,” Powell said in a statement.
“He is the kind of leader needed by the Department of Defense to deal with the strategic and resource challenges it will be facing over the next several years,” Powell said in reference to a budget crunch as economic measures include cutbacks in defense spending.
Powell has been an outspoken supporter of Obama.
Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme allied commander, said Hagel has earned the president’s trust.
Hagel’s experience in Vietnam, which earned him two Purple Hearts, gave him “the proper appreciation for what it’s like on the ground, at the bottom,” Hagel said. That’s especially true of Vietnam experience because the country “didn’t appreciate the men and women” who served, Clark said.
But Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was not supportive.
“Our troops deserve much better than a man who voted to send them to war when it was popular and then abandoned those very troops when it was unpopular,” he said, referring to Hagel’s 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq and his ultimate opposition to it. “I was one of those troops.”
Cotton said he still believes going to war in Iraq was the right call for the United States.
He also argued that the surge in Iraq succeeded, despite Hagel’s opposition.
And Cotton took aim at a remark Hagel reportedly made in a 2007 speech at Catholic University: “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.”
The remark was reported by Foreign Policy in Focus, which says it is aimed at making the United States “a more responsible global partner.”
‘All I can to prevent war’
If he becomes defense secretary, Hagel will be tasked with carrying out the orders of a president who vowed to end two wars — Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ending and avoiding war are part of what he committed his life to while in his 20s in Vietnam, Berens writes.
“After a year of Vietnam’s miserable heat, nearly constant danger, and violent campaigns like the Tet Offensive, Chuck Hagel came back to the United States ready to get on with things — and with both a loyalty to the U.S. military and a belief he should do all he could to prevent his nation’s being involved in another war.”
His fierce opposition to the Iraq War went far toward creating the schism that now exists between him and the Republican establishment.
“The damage this war has done to our country will play out for years to come,” he wrote in his 2008 book, “America: Our Next Chapter.”
“While it is easy for nations to blunder into war, they never blunder into peace,” he added.
His opposition to the 2009 surge in Afghanistan put him at odds with the president who nominated him. The surge showed a rare moment of support for Obama among many Republicans, with Hagel as a standout exception.
But his willingness to be an independent voice has won him cheers as well.
“He’s a guy with really serious foreign policy chops and someone, frankly, who hasn’t been afraid to depart from his party when he thought they were wrong,” Murphy said in an interview with CNN.
Apology for ‘insensitive’ remark
As defense secretary, Hagel would oversee a military that recently dropped its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gay and lesbian personnel — a policy he supported. Battles continue over whether same-sex marriages can take place at some U.S. bases.
So his perspective on gays and lesbians carries particular weight.
In 1998, he opposed James Hormel, an openly gay man, for an ambassadorship. Hagel questioned whether Hormel was suitable, describing him as “openly, aggressively gay.”
In December, 14 years later, he apologized, calling those comments “insensitive.”
“They do not reflect my views. I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights.”
The Log Cabin Republicans, a group that supports gay rights, argues the apology was “too little, too late.”
But gay rights activist Rick Jacob, head of the Courage Campaign, said he supports the president making his choice for defense chief, and noted that “no one trying to derail (Hagel’s) nomination attacks his qualifications.”
Hagel’s support for Israel questioned
Despite his protests, concerns about Hagel’s support for Israel could play a big role in confirmation hearings.
In addition to calling for talks with Iran, which openly antagonizes Israel, Hagel has spoken out against some sanctions – a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy aimed at pressuring Tehran over its nuclear program.
The New York Times notes that Hagel was “one of only two senators to vote against the Iran-Libya sanctions act in 2001, arguing that it would undercut efforts to engage with Tehran.”
Graham noted that Hagel has wanted Israel to talk with Hamas, a “terrorist group that lobs thousands of rockets into Israel. He also was one of 12 senators who refused to sign a letter to the European Union trying to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.”
There was no reference to Hamas in the Journal Star story Monday.
His remark about a “Jewish lobby” has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum and from some Jewish organizations.
“Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president’s prerogative,” Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.
“I trust that the confirmation process will provide an opportunity for Senator Hagel to address concerns about his positions. … I particularly hope Senator Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the ‘Jewish lobby’ that were hurtful to many in the Jewish community.”
Hagel joined two other senators in introducing a resolution in June 2007, pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resolution called on Hamas “to recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist, to renounce and end all terror and incitement, and to accept past agreements and obligations with the State of Israel.”
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska, a longtime friend of Hagel’s, told CNN that Hagel is “definitely a friend of Israel. He is independent, has wonderful, fresh ideas to try to reengage the discussion about the Middle East.”
Azriel grew up in Israel, and said he personally supports the idea of doors being “opened for negotiation even with Hamas and Hezbollah.”
‘Thorough vetting’ ahead
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Democratic-controlled Senate, vowed Hagel would receive a “thorough vetting” just like any other presidential nominee.
Hagel, in his remarks Monday, emphasized his willingness to speak his mind. “Mr. president, I will always give you my honest and most informed council,” he vowed.
While he did not discuss his views on any of the flashpoint issues during his brief comments, a line from Hagel’s 2006 biography offers insight into how he would lead.
“I’m a hard-edged realist. I understand the world as it is,” he said. “But war is a terrible thing. There’s no glory, only suffering.”