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Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany

A Stubborn Guy

By Hubert Wetzel

Translated By Ron Argentati

7 January 2013

Edited by Lau­rence Bouvard

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung - Original Article (German)

He came from a poor Nebraska family, fought in Vietnam, became a self-made millionaire in the cell phone business and later became a senator. Without his share of stubbornness, Chuck Hagel wouldn't be where he is today — at the center of power. President Barack Obama wants the Republican to be his Secretary of Defense.

It can't hurt if a Secretary of Defense knows what war is like. Chuck Hagel had his slice of the war decades ago in Vietnam — presumably more than he actually wanted. Hagel had just turned 21, a farm boy fresh out of high school, when the Army sent him to Vietnam. Hagel spent a year in the Mekong Delta combat zone and had risen to the rank of sergeant and squad leader.

One of the men under his command was his younger brother Tom, whose life he helped save with a field dressing when he was wounded in the chest by shrapnel. His brother returned the favor later by pulling Chuck out of a burning armored vehicle. The Hagel brothers survived Vietnam, between them bringing home five Purple Hearts and half a dozen awards for bravery. They had seen enough of war.

Years later, when he was already a successful businessman, millionaire and senator, Chuck Hagel vowed, “I will do all I can to prevent war,” adding there was nothing glorious about it.

America's Warlord

Chuck Hagel is now on the brink of becoming America's warlord. President Obama nominated the 66-year-old as his next Secretary of Defense. It's not unusual that a Democratic president would choose a Republican for the post. Former Secretary Robert Gates was a Republican; Obama kept the Bush appointee on as the Pentagon boss. What is unusual, however, is the sharp rejection Hagel is getting from his Republican colleagues in the Senate, who must confirm his nomination.

There are two things that anger Hagel's former Senate colleagues. First, they say Hagel is an enemy of Israel — an absurd accusation invented a few weeks ago by neoconservative Washington henchmen and one they hope people will believe if they repeat it often enough. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina complained in a television appearance that Hagel, “would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history.”

Point of Contention: Iran

The truth is that Hagel — more strongly than other senators — has criticized Israel's settlement expansion policy as well as the degree of influence pro-Israeli lobbying groups are able to exert in Washington. America, he warned, shouldn't subordinate its Middle East interests to Israel's. He was also accused of once referring to a “Jewish lobby” in the U.S., a statement for which he later apologized but for which his enemies still denounce him as an anti-Semite.

Since Obama himself has no particular inner attachment to the Israeli government, Hagel's criticism of Jerusalem is likely to be in line with his own opinion. The second Republican criticism is more valid: Obama has clearly reiterated that he would not permit Iran to build a nuclear weapon. In order for that to work, the military option has to remain on the table. Hagel, on the other hand, has repeatedly said that he doesn't favor a military strike against Iran's nuclear program, arguing instead in favor of a diplomatic solution. If Hagel is made Secretary of Defense, the situation could arise wherein America goes to war with Iran on order of the president, but a war that is rejected by his own Secretary of Defense. Such a scenario would be politically untenable over time.

The fact that Hagel is somewhat stubborn can't be news to Obama. They've known each other since their days in the senate, Hagel from 1997 to 2009 and Obama from 2005 to 2008. When Obama made his first campaign trip to Iraq, he was accompanied by Hagel. The Democrat and the Republican were in agreement even back then that the invasion had been a tragic mistake. Hagel had originally voted in favor of military intervention in Iraq, but later commented it would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out.” That was a direct attack against George W. Bush and his Republican friends, who ended Hagel's senate career and who have also never forgiven him to this day. Senator John McCain, also a Vietnam veteran, today publicly expressed his doubts that Hagel was really a Republican.

Without a good measure of stubbornness Charles Timothy Hagel would not be where he is today. He comes from Nebraska, a state that's as flat as a frying pan where tornadoes regularly touch down; it's red hot in summer and in the winter it's a frozen expanse. Nebraska is prairie land on which buffalo and European settlers — many of them from Germany, like Hagel's ancestors — once roamed, built sod huts and raised cattle. Milk and honey might flow somewhere in America but only the meager, muddy Platte River flows through Nebraska, where Sioux and Cheyenne warriors once battled the U.S. Cavalry.

Hagel Has Several Fights to Face

Hagel comes from a poor family; his father did odd jobs and drank too much. After he died, Chuck had to provide for his mother and younger brother. He worked his way up, served his country, got rich in the cell phone trade and was finally elected senator. Small wonder that he didn't listen to what an armchair strategist like George W. Bush — who managed to avoid serving in Vietnam — had to say about the mess in Iraq.

Hagel will face two major tasks as Secretary of Defense. First, he has to end America's involvement in Afghanistan; all U.S. troops are scheduled to depart the country by the end of 2014. Ending a war — that has to be a pleasant chore for the first Pentagon chief to have been a soldier in Vietnam. Next, Hagel himself has called America's defense budget “bloated.” Obama expects him to reduce defense spending by some $700 million annually. That won't be easy; the weapons industry and their allies in the Pentagon fight tooth and nail for every dollar. Chuck Hagel has a few battles still to fight.



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