Why Obama is picking Chuck Hagel for defense secretary

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Chuck Hagel is a conservative on most issues and his selection allows President Obama, like with his first Cabinet, to say he is reaching across party lines for advice.

But in reality, Hagel may be the most unorthodox and liberal choice Obama could have made for secretary of defense. In Washington, there is a foreign policy establishment of both Democrats and Republicans who have agreed on many of the key policies of the last decade: the war in Iraq under President Bush (at least initially),  the 2007 troop surge there, Obama’s 2010 surge in Afghanistan, the push for harsh sanctions against Iran for attempting to develop nuclear weapons, and an almost  unequivocal embrace of Israel.

Hagel has wholeheartedly rejected this consensus. Like Obama, he was a vocal, early skeptic of the Iraq War (although he did vote for it in 2002) and later the troop surge there. He did not support Obama’s push for additional troops in Afghanistan. He has suggested America should tone down talk of war with Iran, even if that nation develops nuclear weapons. Even more controversially, Hagel has said the U.S. government occasionally bows too heavily to the interests of Israel, annoying Jewish activists as well as many in Congress.

“The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel said in a 2006 interview, adding, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

In short, Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, is a conservative except on foreign policy.  He is a decorated Vietnam veteran who won two Purple Hearts there and openly admits that experience makes him very wary of sending Americans into wars abroad.  His dovish views make him the polar opposite on many issues of the other leading Republican Vietnam veteran in Washington: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“We sent home almost 16,000 body bags that year,” Hagel told National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh of his Vietnam experience. “And I always thought to myself, ‘If I get through this, if I have the opportunity to influence anyone, I owe it to those guys to never let this happen again to the country.”

Obama is picking Hagel for two reasons. Perhaps most importantly, Hagel and Obama have both a strong personal relationship and a similarity of views on foreign policy. They became friends in the Senate, and that alliance grew in 2008, when Hagel became an informal adviser to Obama on foreign policy during the campaign. Hagel pointedly refused to endorse McCain, a longtime ally who he had grown to disagree with on many key foreign policy issues, and instead openly embraced Obama, accompanying him on a high-profile visit to Iraq during the campaign.

More importantly, Hagel wants to shake up American foreign policy, and so does Obama. The president has been careful not to create a unifying “Obama Doctrine,” as Bush did in his push for spread democracy around the world. But Obama has been gradually trying to make a series of profound changes to American foreign policy. The president wants to retain American’s ability to intervene military in countries where leaders are pursuing goals against U.S. interests or killing their own people (like in Libya) but not become bogged down in wars and nation-building like in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He wants to keep the U.S. as a preeminent world power, but one that is liked and can therefore form alliances with other nations. He is trying to keep America’s military strong but also reduce defense spending so more of the government’s money can be spent at home.

Hagel has supported these goals, and may have extra credibility in implementing them as both an ex-senator and Vietnam veteran.

But this is a risky choice by the president. Picking Hagel suggests Obama has not been cowed by the opposition of McCain and Sen Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who effectively vetoed the nomination of Susan Rice to be secretary of state and have also signaled they will oppose the Hagel nomination. In fact, Obama is openly embracing a confrontation with the leading figures in the GOP on foreign policy, both of whom disagree with nearly every stance Hagel has taken over the last decade.  And in the midst of battles with Republicans in Congress over the debt ceiling and gun control, the president is now asking them to accept a defense secretary he knows they do not like.

And that won’t be the only problem for Hagel getting confirmed by the Senate. The former senator is also opposed by some Democrats, who complain about his comments on Israel and his description of an openly gay Clinton administration figure as “aggressively gay” in 1998. (Hagel has apologized for the remark, a point Obama has emphasized in defending his potential nominee).

And for Democrats, Hagel’s nomination highlights questions about the diversity of Obama’s team. With White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew expected to become the treasury secretary and John Kerry already nominated as secretary of state, Obama has picked white males for perhaps the three most important spots in the Cabinet. Rice, who is staying on as United Nations ambassador, and Attorney General Eric Holder remain, but administration officials are openly aware of this concern.

And in choosing Hagel, Obama bypassed a candidate to run the Pentagon who was much more popular with many in both parties, Michele Flournoy, who served under Obama as the under-secretary for policy at the Defense Department. Picking her also would have made history, as no woman has ever been defense secretary.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr