Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel

Hans Nichols at Bloomberg reports that former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and one of the few early GOP converts against the Iraq War, is the leading candidate to replace Leon Panetta at the Department of Defense.

Hagel, who served as an enlisted Army infantryman in Vietnam, has passed the vetting process at the White House Counsel’s office, said one of the people. The former Nebraska senator has told associates that he is awaiting final word from the president, said the other person. Both requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

Other contenders are Michele Flournoy, former defense undersecretary for policy, and Ashton Carter, deputy defense secretary, administration officials have said.

Obama invited Hagel to the White House on Dec. 4 to discuss the position with him, according to an administration official. The president hasn’t made a final decision, said another official. Both asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Hagel did support the invasion of Iraq, along with Joe Biden, John Kerry and a substantial portion of the Democratic elite class. But Hagel broke with the policy and voted for withdrawal in the Senate as early as March 2007. He actually said that the US was losing in Iraq all the way back in 2005. So he did show a reality-based viewpoint on that signature issue. Hagel appears to have far more concern for the enlisted man than the foreign policy mandarins who want to continue prosecuting wars.

Hagel favors what the right-wing Washington Times calls “crippling budget cuts” at the Pentagon, which in reality would make the US military only slightly smaller than all the rest of the nation’s armies combined, instead of slightly bigger. Several House Republicans now support defense cuts, and Hagel seems to line up with them. If you’re going to have a budget-cutter in the cabinet, put them at DoD.

There’s one argument that elevating Hagel is a bad idea because of the trend of Democratic Presidents putting Republicans in place at the Pentagon, with the perception that Democrats cannot handle military affairs and must resort to a “GOP daddy” to handle it all. President Clinton had William Cohen as one of his Secretaries of Defense, and President Obama started out with Robert Gates (who eventually became a political independent). I don’t have a strong opinion on this. If Hagel is both qualified and less psychopathic than others, his party affiliation doesn’t mean much to me. Maybe all things being equal, I’d prefer a Democrat. And breaking the gender ceiling with Michele Flournoy running the Pentagon would have a certain power. But Hagel’s selection, if true, doesn’t bother me all that much. He has the right enemies – Dick Cheney and the neocons, for one.

Anyway, everyone knows that the CIA runs our wars these days, so maybe the choice for that position ought to be more scrutinized.