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Mike Pride: Chuck Hagel won’t shoot from the hip as defense secretary

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska talks with staff members of the Concord Monitor during an editorial board interview at the Monitor on Tuesday, 3/21/06.

(Concord Monitor photo/Dan Habib)

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska talks with staff members of the Concord Monitor during an editorial board interview at the Monitor on Tuesday, 3/21/06. (Concord Monitor photo/Dan Habib) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

Like most U.S. senators, Chuck Hagel awoke one morning, looked in the mirror and saw a president. Like most U.S. senators, Hagel turned out to be staring at a mirage.

Unaware of this at the time, he took the logical step and headed for New Hampshire. There, his friend Bob Odell, the state senator from Lempster, arranged an interview for him at the Monitor.

That was in February 2006, and I was editor. Hagel, now President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, was then a Republican senator from Nebraska known for speaking his mind even when – perhaps especially when – he disagreed with his party’s line. Politics aside, I left our hour-long conversation with nothing but respect for him. I was also certain he had no chance as a presidential candidate.

One thing he said about his own party should suffice to make that point: “We have been living in a Never Never Land of talk shows and base dishonesty. We’ve grown skillful at saying one thing and doing another.”

Hagel had opposed President George W. Bush’s chief domestic programs, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. The education initiative he characterized as an expensive failure and the drug benefit as a new entitlement at a time when the country needed to reduce and restructure the entitlements it already had.

Both programs violated the core of the Republican philosophy Hagel had adopted as a 21-year-old soldier sitting on a tank in Vietnam in 1968. His was a party of limited government and fiscal responsibility. By contrast, the Bush administration was running up debt with federal overreach, giveaways and unpaid-for wars. “It’s a joke,” he said. “It’s beyond a joke.”

When Hagel spun out the conditions that might turn his presidential dream into reality, it was even clearer how much of a maverick he was. If, in the 2006 midterm elections, the Republican Party was badly defeated, he said, this would be good news for him. The party might then seek out a candidate like him to restore its traditional values.

Sound logic perhaps, but wishing defeat on your party so that you can save it is hardly a formula for building support. After an editorial board interview, it was our habit as journalists to size up prospective candidates and their presidential aspirations. I muttered one word: “Hopeless.”

The issue today is not Hagel’s fitness for the White House but his prospects as a defense secretary. The 2006 interview provided some clues here as well.

The Iraq war dominated the discussion. As a senator, Hagel had voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq because he believed it would strengthen the hand of Secretary of State Colin Powell in the debate over confronting Saddam Hussein. But during his Senate speech on the resolution he observed that most Americans had little understanding of Iraq’s people or culture.

He also said President Bush owed the country a candid assessment of the costs and dangers of a post-Saddam Iraq. “We should not be seduced by the expectations of dancing in the streets,” he said.

It struck me that you could substitute Vietnam for Iraq in this statement, and it would be equally true. Having been to Vietnam as a soldier, Hagel knew all too well the gap between Washington’s airy assurances and the real price of war.

I asked him directly how his soldiering had influenced his position on Iraq. The answer was tempered steel. The lack of wartime experience, he said, can lead to “glib noble statements” about military power. As an example, he cited the assertion that Iraq was a good incubator for democracy that would then spread to neighboring countries.

He also reminded us that 17,000 American soldiers died during the year he was in Vietnam. He saw terrible things there, as you would expect from a recipient of two Purple Hearts. But in thinking about American foreign policy now, he said, “I try not to let those experiences capture me completely.” It was important, he said, to listen carefully to the advice of others.

Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense faces resistance. His sharp tongue and perceived softness on potential enemies have alienated some Republicans. His conservative views alarm some Democrats. Past statements on Israel and Iran have raised concerns.

But Hagel knows the difference between a maverick senator and a Cabinet officer. One of Barack Obama’s best qualities from the outset of his presidency was a slower trigger finger on foreign policy than Bush’s: more diplomacy, less swagger. Hagel is in tune with that. He is a serious thinker who welcomes diverse opinions, a realist who understands the perils of hip-shooting.

In a 2008 book Hagel wrote: “War, once it is unleashed, is always uncontrollable, unpredictable, and painful beyond the predictions of those who beat the drum the loudest.” If you had a son or daughter or husband or wife in uniform, wouldn’t you be comforted to know the secretary of defense held this belief and had come by it the hard way?

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