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Rank-Breaking Makes Hagel a GOP Target, Despite Hawkish Record

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Hagel occasionally split with the GOP on military issues, and some of those votes and stances are sure to come up during confirmation hearings.

“On the Appropriations Committee, those of us charged with handling the Senate’s work on the Pentagon budget will have to make more than a hundred billion dollars in cuts to begin with, and it will be good to work with someone like Chuck Hagel who can lead the Pentagon during a difficult time of transition,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., a senior leader on Appropriations.

But Hagel has piqued the ire of neoconservatives for opposing controversial CIA interrogation techniques, the use of the military’s Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility for terrorist detainees and the Iraq War, after initially supporting it.

“He’s clearly alienated some Republicans over that and time has passed and the concerns are going to be from here on out,” said Dov S. Zakheim, who served as undersecretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. “He’s a strong believer in saying what he thinks. You can’t criticize him for that. You can disagree with him.”

Not surprisingly, in 2007, with Hagel in full-throated opposition to the war in Iraq, his presidential and party unity vote percentages dipped into the low 70s.

Hagel has also been criticized for his past statements supporting engagement with Iran and groups such as Hezbollah, rather than applying sanctions. He opposed Bush’s surge of troops into Iraq and Obama’s later surge in Afghanistan.

“As you know, Chuck Hagel and I had some differences over the years, for example, over the surge, which he said would be the worst mistake since the Vietnam War, and obviously it was successful,” McCain said in a late-December interview on CNN.

But Scowcroft said he, too, opposed the Iraq War, “and I don’t think there are too many supporters of it now.” Indeed, he argued that Hagel is thoughtful and patient. He said within every presidential administration there are those who become frustrated with the slow nature of diplomacy.

With Hagel, Scowcroft said, because of his combat experience, he will question the implications of military intervention.

“I think he’s particularly good on one element: our involvement militarily around the world,” he said. “He’s been in the foxhole and from my own experience, when a crisis comes up and it is complicated and diplomacy seems awkward and difficult, there is always a call to say cut through all this stuff with the military, like Iran, like Iraq. ‘Let’s just take care of it.’

“He will have a visceral answer to that. What will he get into if we do that? It’s not high policy. It is what does it mean when you get involved militarily in a conflict?”

Military Cuts

While Hagel has been a reliable Pentagon backer in the past, he has expressed support in recent years for reducing the size of the Pentagon. Zakheim said some members of the Republican Party are uneasy with his views.

“The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,” Hagel told the Financial Times in 2011. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don’t think our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time.”

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