Despite 12 Years in Senate, Hagel Has Few Allies There

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WASHINGTON -- For a man who spent 12 years in the Senate, Chuck Hagel will find himself with few close allies when the Armed Services Committee takes up his nomination to be secretary of defense this month.

His three closest friends from his years as a Republican senator from Nebraska, 1997 to 2009, are either no longer members or in no position to help. One is the vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Another, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, limped out of the Capitol this month after being defeated for re-election in a Republican primary.

The third, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, faces his own proceedings to be secretary of state.

Of the senators who will sit in judgment, 42 never served a day with Mr. Hagel. The ones who remain include powerful Republicans who clashed repeatedly with him over what was the singular issue of the time: the American invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath.

And in Washington, apostasy from within a party can leave far deeper scars than the routine clashes between the parties.

"The debate over the Iraq war was bitterly contentious," said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska and, like Mr. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran. "He made friendships with Democrats and Republicans, but some of them were certainly damaged by the Iraq war debate."

Even in the current political environment, a president's nominee with a Senate pedigree is supposed to have an inside track to confirmation. Mr. Kerry's confirmation is thought to be a bipartisan certainty, and his views on Iraq were no less vocal than Mr. Hagel's.

But Mr. Hagel was no ordinary senator serving at an ordinary time. His outspoken, brusque style endeared him to television talk show bookers, but he was not known as a legislator or a dealmaker. An intense focus on foreign policy placed him in the heart of a bipartisan foursome on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that included Mr. Biden and Mr. Lugar, who alternated as the panel's chairman and ranking minority member, and Mr. Kerry.

But those same traits alienated the more hawkish leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including a natural Republican ally, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam War hero, as well as Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican -- both of whom have come out critical of his nomination.

"My biggest concern is his overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East, and whether we should reduce the Pentagon further," Mr. McCain told CNN on Tuesday.

Mr. Hagel spoke to Mr. McCain by telephone on Monday, and the two had what one aide described as a cordial conversation. They are set to have a face-to-face meeting later. Mr. McCain still considers Mr. Hagel a friend, a McCain aide said, "but they have drifted apart on a lot of issues."

Republican opponents say their positions are not rooted in the personal.

"It's not a matter of personalities," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. "Chuck Hagel is an honorable man."

But supporters and some detractors say Mr. Hagel's style and interactions cannot help coloring his nomination's reception in a Senate more deeply political than the one he left four years ago.

"This is a person in public life prepared to offer his honest objections, to give his opinions," Mr. Lugar said, "and to do so without looking over his shoulder at potential political contributions or the people who might run a primary campaign against him, which is the overwhelming sentiment of so many today in the Senate."

Hearings are likely to convene at the end of this month or in early February, and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who served on the Foreign Relations Committee with Mr. Hagel for two years, said he and other senators would aggressively question him about his views on Iran and his commitment to Israel.

"I would be very surprised if anyone who served with him asks questions about his character," Mr. Cardin said. "The fact that I know him, the fact that I've worked with him reinforces his qualifications and independence."

Ultimately, his confirmation could hinge on two men, Mr. Biden, whose advocacy will be fierce, especially with Democrats who now control 55 Senate seats, and Mr. McCain, whom the administration still sees as winnable.

The bond between Mr. Hagel and Mr. Biden was sealed in a sport utility vehicle in December 2002, according to an Obama administration official. The two men drove from Turkey to Irbil, Iraq, an eight-hour trek to assess the Kurdish leadership ahead of the coming American invasion. Once there, they spent hours at a feast with Kurdish leaders, then stayed up all night working on joint speeches after receiving unexpected invitations to address the Kurdish parliament the next day.

In the summer of 2002, Mr. Biden had convened two days of hearings on the lead-up to the war and its possible aftermath. Only three senators -- he, Mr. Lugar and Mr. Hagel -- sat through the proceedings, said Andy Fisher, a longtime Republican aide on the Foreign Relations Committee.

As the invasion approached, the three tried fruitlessly to draft an alternative use-of-force resolution that would slow the move to war by creating additional diplomatic steps for the Bush administration. In June 2003, the three became the first senators to visit American-occupied Iraq.

Over that time, Mr. Hagel was becoming increasingly blunt in his criticism of the Republican administration. As far back as August 2002, seven months before the invasion, he said, "I can think of no historical case where the United States succeeded in an enterprise of such gravity and complexity as regime change in Iraq without the support of a regional and international coalition -- not just for military operations against Iraq, should that day come, but for the day after, when the interests and intrigues of outside powers could undermine the fragility of an Iraqi government in transition."

By September 2004, Mr. Hagel was openly blasting the Bush administration's Iraq recovery efforts as "beyond pitiful."

Mr. McCain, who was once close with Mr. Hagel, saw their relationship sour over Iraq and then when Mr. Hagel defended Mr. Obama during his 2008 presidential race against Mr. McCain.

But Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a supporter of Mr. Hagel's confirmation who is on the Armed Services Committee, said this week that Mr. Hagel's voice in the Iraq debate was "prophetic."

Mr. Reed said that in the end, the nominee's life story, his Vietnam War experience and the support he will marshal from veterans groups and current service members would carry him to the Pentagon.

"He will be confirmed," Mr. Reed said.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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