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United States

Hagel, a contrarian at the gate

Barack Obama wants former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon. While few doubt his qualification, confirmation by his former colleagues won’t be a cake walk for the outspoken Nebraskan.

It's like clockwork. Talking to various experts to get a sense of President Obama's nominee for Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, each and every one without fail offers up the former Senator's main character trait:

Hagel is a maverick.

"He is someone who will challenge traditional thinking and ask tough questions," says James Davis, professor of international politics at St. Gallen University in Switzerland. Hagel, adds Davis, likes to think outside of the box. "I think he is an intelligent choice."

"He is a unconventional choice, a very independent spirit," concurs Andreas Falke, professor for English-speaking societies at Erlangen-Nürnberg University. Falke, who met and had a long conversation with Hagel years ago, also believes that the 66-year-old politicians would make a good defense secretary.

Decorated Vietnam veteran

His qualifications for the post are beyond reproach, even for his critics. The long-time Senator was one of the most respected foreign policy and security experts in Congress. What's more, as a highly decorated Vietnam veteran Hagel also has the necessary personal military experience for the job.

ARCHIV - Die neu gewählten Mitglieder des US-Repräsentantenhauses gehen am 14.11.2006 für ein Gruppenfoto die Stufen zum Capitol in Washington hinauf. Am 6. November geht es in den USA nicht nur ums Weiße Haus. Auch im US-Kongress wird die Macht neu verteilt. EPA/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH (zu «Die andere Wahl am 6. November: Harter Kampf um den Kongress» vom 30.10.2012) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Hagel has ruffled some feathers in Congress

Despite these assets, Hagel's confirmation in the Senate could cause some headaches for the Obama administration. That's because during his long career in the Senate, Hagel rarely shied away from controversy. His knack for ruffling feathers left many bruised egos and limited the number of political friends he has won in both parties and in Washington since entering the Senate in 1996.

Israel and climate change

Some of his Republican and Democratic critics have questioned Hagel's loyalty to Israel after he was quoted with remarks about the influence of the Jewish lobby in the US that were viewed as critical of Israel in a new book by Middle East expert Aaron David Miller. His earlier role as an avid climate change opponent who vehemently rejected the Kyoto protocol may still irk environmental activists inside and outside the Democratic Party.

In 1998, Hagel openly rejected a gay candidate for an ambassador post, a move that triggered outrage by gay rights groups. As a consequence, Hagel apologized. Still, some gay groups have voiced their opposition to his nomination as Pentagon chief.      

Iraq war opponent

But Hagel also didn't spare his own Republican Party: Ironically he denied support to fellow maverick and kindred spirit John McCain when the latter ran for president in 2008. His strong and public opposition to the Iraq war and the so-called war on terror of the Bush administration also remains a sore point for many conservative Republicans. Hagel originally voted for the invasion of Iraq, but later become one of its most outspoken critics.     

His stance toward Iran's nuclear program is also too opaque for proponents of a more tougher US foreign policy vis-à-vis Tehran. During the Bush years, Hagel repeatedly warned against a military strike on Iran. In a recent joint op-ed in the Washington Post, he explicitly didn't exclude the military option in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, however Hagel is considered to be more of a multilateralist.

"I believe Hagel is someone who is much more reluctant, no hawk, but someone who thinks very carefully about the consequences of possible actions," notes Falke. That does not make him an isolationist, but it precludes him from stumbling into short-sighted military adventures, says Falke. Hagel, he adds, analyzes situations "without ideological blinders."

Despite his political unorthodoxy, the experts predict that at the end of the day Hagel will be confirmed by his former colleagues in the Senate.

Defense cuts

ARCHIV -Der damalige republikanische Senator Chuck Hagel, aufgenommen in Washington (Archivfoto vom 08.4.2008) . Chuck Hagel ist angeblich Favorit von Präsident Barack Obama bei der Suche nach einem neuen Verteidigungsminister. Wie die Agentur Bloomberg am Donnerstag unter Berufung auf unterrichtete Kreise berichtete, könnte Obama den 67-Jährigen noch in diesem Monat für den Posten nominieren. Foto: Ron Sachs / CNP +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
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Hagel is known for his blunt style

Having the Republican Hagel at the helm of the Pentagon will make it easier for Obama to pass the unavoidable defense budget cuts, says Davis. "He is someone who is not shy to speak his mind also to the top military brass." Falke notes that Hagel had previously said that the Pentagon's budget does not exist to serve industrial policy or local political interests. "This is of course an explosive statement, since Congress members naturally want to keep their military installations in their districts."     

Substantial and short-term changes however should not be expected - even from Hagel - argue the scholars, since the US' geopolitical and strategic interests remain unchanged. Most likely to emerge, according to Barbara Zanchetta, a US expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy und the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, is a new political initiative in the protracted Middle East peace process by Washington's new foreign policy axis, former Senators Obama, Hagel and Kerry.

For Europe not much will change under Hagel, notes Zanchetta. Barring any crisis, Asia and the Middle East will continue to feature more prominently for the US leaving Europe to play only a minor role. 

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