WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama nominates Chuck Hagel, the maverick Republican and former senator from Nebraska, to be his next secretary of defense, he will be turning to a trusted ally whose willingness to defy party loyalty and conventional wisdom won his admiration both in the Senate and on a 2008 tour of war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The choice of Hagel, the first Vietnam veteran to be nominated for the post, would add a prominent Republican to Obama’s Cabinet, providing some political cover for the president’s plans to exit Afghanistan and make cuts to a military budget that has roughly doubled since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But Republicans made clear Sunday that they would give Hagel a rough ride on his path to the Pentagon, questioning his support for Israel, his seriousness about the Iranian nuclear threat and his commitment to an adequate defense budget. And Obama may also face difficulties from some Democrats who are wary of negative comments Hagel made more than a decade ago about gays.
Some Obama aides had doubts about the wisdom of the choice, given Hagel’s frosty relationship with members of his own party, but officials said they were confident that they could corral enough votes from both sides of the aisle to win confirmation in the Senate. White House officials confirmed Sunday that Hagel was Obama’s pick for the job and said the announcement would come as early as today.
Rather than turning to a defense technocrat, Obama decided on an independent politician whose service in Vietnam gave him a lifelong skepticism about the commitment of U.S. lives in overseas conflicts. Like Obama, Hagel supported the war in Afghanistan but opposed the troop surge in Iraq under President George W. Bush.
Hagel, 66, served as an enlisted man in Vietnam, won two Purple Hearts and still carries bits of shrapnel in his chest. He was the co-founder of a cellular telephone company and headed an investment banking firm before being elected to the Senate in 1996. He retired in 2009 and now teaches at Georgetown University and serves as chairman of the Atlantic Council, a centrist foreign policy group.