Why Chuck Hagel Should Be Secretary of Defense

FILE - In this June 26, 2008 file photo, then Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution
FILE - In this June 26, 2008 file photo, then Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. President Barack Obama may round out his new national security leadership team next week, with a nomination for defense secretary expected and a pick to lead the CIA possible. Hagel is the front-runner for the top Pentagon post. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

Vietnam veteran and former Senator Chuck Hagel is the ideal man to serve as Secretary of Defense. In the small world category, I've known him for over 30 years. In all of that time, I have consistently regarded him as a man of high moral character who puts service and honesty ahead of politics and ambition.

And let's be clear about one thing: no one trying to derail his nomination attacks his qualifications. Instead, they seek to score political points and/or act at the behest of powerful special interests by denying the president his choice as defense chief.

This sort of political jockeying disgusts the public, further erodes public faith in Washington and weakens our country.

Here is what his critics won't tell you and the Chuck I know.

Chuck's first federal civilian appointment was as Deputy U.S. Commissioner General to the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, which also happened to be my first job out of college. I had a good excuse. I was born and raised in East Tennessee, so going back after school to work on the Fair was a logical next step for me. Chuck on the other hand found himself as the working representative of President Reagan on a project that was very much part of then-Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr.'s vision for his state and region.

When I visited Chuck in his office in lower Georgetown, just below M Street, I'd see him writing out nice notes to people and then copying them over onto good paper. Off they'd go, in his own hand, dozens of them.

In a matter of months, he was off to a top post at the Veteran's Administration. We stayed in touch, but our lives went in very different directions. In the early 1990s, I became a civilian advisor to Dr. William Perry, first Deputy and then Secretary of Defense, on his very successful efforts to convert defense facilities in the former USSR to more peaceful purposes. I spent most of the 1990s doing business in Russia. When I came back to DC, I read that Chuck Hagel had been elected to the US Senate from Nebraska. I hand-wrote a note to him, asking if he was the same Chuck Hagel who worked at the World's Fair and used to practice handwriting his notes. He wrote back, in his own hand, "busted."

Chuck and I got together several times over the ensuing years. While I did not always agree with him, I was always impressed by his character and forthrightness. We'd discuss Russia, other issues, and he always had strong opinions which were informed by his hard work. Later in his career, I saw this powerful, flexible mind applied when Chuck spoke out against the war in Iraq and for a more sensible policy in Afghanistan and Iran. No "neo-con" he; Chuck Hagel studied, read, visited, analyzed and used his own experience to arrive at his own conclusions.

Some of us may remember the little boomlet around the idea of an Obama-Hagel ticket in 2008. It seems that we've come full circle, and with heads screwed on straight, the Senate will consent to his becoming Secretary of Defense.

Here's why that should happen:

1. Chuck Hagel understands the confluence of the military, power politics and the values of this nation. A highly decorated veteran who served with his brother in the most unpopular war in U.S. history, a Secretary Hagel will have no fear in cutting the fat out of the Pentagon, in taking on the giant military-industrial complex that revives dead projects purely for profit and politics. He'll force the U.S. Government to examine the role of the military for the next few generations. No one inside the complex can doubt his bona fides. They may not like his conclusions, but they'll have to work with him, not against him.

2. Chuck learns. I have no doubt that Chuck, like most Americans and most American elected officials of his generation and time, was uncomfortable with the idea of "out" gay and lesbian people. I wish he had not said what he did about Jim Hormel, one of the most distinguished warriors for full equality and justice. However, let us not forget that Mr. Hormel was made Ambassador Hormel by the very president that brought us Don't Ask Don't Tell, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). At least Chuck was honest and consistent.

Chuck, like most Americans, has evolved, has changed his views on homosexuality. He gave his word that as DoD chief he supports the law, that openly gay and lesbian soldiers will be treated equally to "straight" ones. Remember when the Commandant of the Marine Corps opposed repeal of DADT and then when it passed said the Marines would implement it better than any other branch?

I want to know that Chuck will do his job with enthusiasm, following the law and the policy lead of President Obama. He will.

3. Some say that Chuck is "too soft on Iran." That is, on its face, absurd. Had America wanted an administration committed to war with Iran, we had our chance. We want and need a defense policy that defends American interests. To do that, we have first to define those interests. And to do that, we must have surrounding the president, men and women of moral character and personal strength who can provide opposing views and who will first and foremost think of the long-term, not simply short-term outcomes. As they say in business and as is clear in war, it's easy to get in, but getting out is quite another question.

4. Finally, as a progressive, I want leaders who care deeply about the country, not just about ideology and partisanship. From all of my encounters with Chuck Hagel, I know that he is willing to listen, does not operate based on received wisdom and that ultimately he and I may disagree. But when we disagree, we'll do so based on clear understandings, open minds and different points of view, both of which may be legitimate.

I hope the Senate will take up Chuck Hagel's nomination immediately and that he will be confirmed without the usual Washington political games. We could do with a few more Chuck Hagels and many fewer ideological martinets. Approve him and move on. The real fights over policy and execution can come once the president has his new team in place and the country can focus on the future, not on relitigating the last election.