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Chuck Hagel's Afghanistan Positions Align Closely To Obama's, Despite War Critic Reputation

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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. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, 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. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

President Barack Obama is reportedly set to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, as his secretary of defense on Monday.

Hagel, a Republican who represented the state of Nebraska for two terms, famously broke with his party in the mid 2000s over the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror and its military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But while Hagel has built a solid reputation -- decried by the right and hailed by the left -- for being a no-nonsense war critic and foreign policy realist, he has also emerged as a quiet partner of President Obama on foreign policy, a relationship that dates back to their shared time on Capitol Hill and extending into Hagel's retirement.

That relationship is no better exemplified than in the debate over Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan, about which Hagel had been publicly skeptical but in the end a tactic he largely avoided criticizing as he had done previously with the surge in Iraq.

In 2006, as Congress debated supporting President Bush's troop surge into Iraq, Hagel fiercely opposed the plan, calling it "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

Similarly, he often charged that a surge into Afghanistan would be a mistake if there was not a better-articulated overall strategy.

"I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan," Hagel told The National Journal's Michael Hirsh in 2010. "It's not sustainable at all. I think we're marking time as we slaughter more young people."

But his message on the Afghanistan troop surge was always more complex. In the summer of 2009, as the Obama administration studied the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and prepared for a possible surge of troops into that war, Hagel offered surprisingly high praise for the president's deliberation process.

"It's a tough call -- I think it's going to be his toughest call in his first four years," said Hagel in a September 2009 speech at St. John's University in Minnesota. "Whatever he says, he's going to get hit politically ... You're going to have one hell of a shootout here. This guy Obama's smart enough, he's tough enough, he'll do what he thinks is right for the country."

In addition to praising the president, Hagel's own position has come more in line with that of Obama, whose thoughts on the surge were in evidence when the president was just a candidate calling for a renewed focus on Afghanistan.

"We are stretched too thin in Afghanistan, in my opinion, with manpower," Obama said on "Face the Nation" in July 2008, at a time when Hagel had still refused to endorse John McCain for president and was already fielding questions about whether he might take a cabinet position in an Obama administration. "We are going to have to put some additional troops in there."

By the summer of 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal delivered his Afghanistan troop assessment that called for tens of thousands of new forces, Hagel had gone from anti-war gadfly to an instrumental part of the Obama foreign policy machine, including positions on Secretary of Defense Bob Gates' defense policy board and Obama's intelligence advisory board.

"I've had some input on this," he said, during the 2009 speech, in response to a question about the surge. "I'm on the secretary of defense's policy advisory board, and I spent a day and a half last week with the national security adviser [James] Jones last weekend. So I have some ways in. Doesn't mean they listen to me, but I do have some sense of what's ahead here."

The speech, part of the Eugene J. McCarthy lecture series (which honors the famous senator-turned-Vietnam war critic), would have been an ideal environment for Hagel to express any strong misgivings about the ultimate plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Instead, Hagel tempered his critique.

"I think the president is approaching this very carefully, listening to all sides," he said. "I've talked to McChrystal, Admiral [Mike] Mullen. I've told them my thoughts on this because they've asked me. They've got to figure it out what is our strategic purpose, our doctrine, and then match the resources."

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