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UNL Expert Alert: Chuck Hagel to lead the Department of Defense?

Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has met with both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, as the president considers tapping him to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary, and several media outlets are reporting that Hagel appears to have the inside track on the job.

Who is Chuck Hagel and why has he become a frontrunner for one of the most influential cabinet positions in the administration? Charlyne Berens, associate dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, is the author of Hagel’s biography, titled “Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward” (University of Nebraska Press, 2006). The edition examines Hagel’s upbringing in Nebraska, his survival of a tour of duty in Vietnam, his rise to political office and the background that has led Hagel to an outspoken internationalism that often put him at odds with his own party. A paperback edition of the biography will be published in July 2013.

Berens offered these thoughts to the news of Hagel’s potential appointment:

“As I got to know Chuck Hagel for his biography, it seemed to me that he is what one would call a true public servant. His work with the USO, turning it around and making it a viable operation, is a prime example – there’s not a lot of glory in that, but he saw it as important and did it with no desire for political gain. He has a desire to contribute, whether it is in elected office or in a high-level post such as Secretary of Defense — or a presidential advisory group, or the Atlantic Council. He’s committed to public affairs and doing what he can to contribute to solving the issues of the day.

“Helping him in this case is the fact that he was in the Senate, and during his time there he was noted for his bipartisan – not nonpartisan, but bipartisan — tendencies. As we know, (Hagel) sometimes would take positions that were more popular at the time with Democrats than with his fellow Republicans. His criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War (and the administration’s subsequent ‘surge’ strategy) is the most obvious example of that.

“Chuck Hagel is a principled man but also a practical one. His bipartisanship grew during his time in the Senate, and came partly from his frustration that Congress was becoming more and more partisan, and it was becoming more and more difficult to get things done. He entered the Senate with what could be considered staunch Republican credentials but left the Senate as more bipartisan. He’s plain-spoken, which can be rare in Washington. Of course, he’s a political enough person that he knows what he’s walking into when he opens his mouth, but I’ve never gotten the sense that he’s routinely spinning things.

“He would not take the responsibility of being Secretary of Defense lightly. I remember him saying once that before you’re going to decide to send someone’s kid to die, you better be very sure you’re making the right decision. If he were to become Secretary of Defense, he would not be eager to involve the United States militarily. On the other hand, he fully understands the importance of a strong military and its role around the globe. He’s certainly no isolationist – he’s not going to say we’re not going to pay attention to what’s happening in the world; there would be no point in making him Secretary of Defense if he were of that mindset.

“But it’s my impression of Chuck Hagel that he would be very analytical and careful in the decisions he’d put forth in the use of troops. After all, he was there. His experiences in Vietnam, as well as his time working for the USO and the Veterans’ Administration have given him a real sense, and a very realistic sense, of what truly happens in war, and what its costs are. It’s not theoretical to him.

“This fits into the kind of thinking that President Obama seems to like in his advisers. He appears to be more concerned with peoples’ way of thinking and the way they approach problems than what party they are or whether they would agree with him on everything. Obama seems to put value not just in what you think but how you think, and I think he would appreciate Chuck Hagel’s approach.”

Contact: Charlyne Berens, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 402-472-8241 or cberens@unl.edu.

Coverage: NPR’s All Things Considered | CNN.com | The Atlantic | Foreign Policy | TIME | Christian Science Monitor | Baltimore Sun |

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