Hagel’s foreign policy record could doom chances for top Pentagon post

In his journey from conservative Republican to de facto Democrat, Chuck Hagel advocated several fundamental foreign policy positions while in the Senate that have not survived the test of history, an examination of his statements shows.

Mr. Hagel, who retired from the Senate in 2008 and now is a leading candidate to be President Obama’s next defense secretary, became a robust critic of President George W. Bush and the Iraq War in 2005.

As his attacks on Mr. Bush escalated into a broad indictment of the administration’s foreign policy, the Nebraskan formed an alliance with Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden, John F. Kerry and Barack Obama, all but endorsing the latter for president.

Now, Republican opposition to his possible nomination is mounting over his stances on Iraq, Iran and Israel.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Obama defended Mr. Hagel but said he had not picked whom he would nominate to replace Leon E. Panetta as defense secretary.

“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work in the United States Senate,” Mr. Obama said. “Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

By 2008, Mr. Hagel had declared his allegiance to the foreign policy beliefs of now-Vice President Biden, who at one time called for Iraq to be split into three parts and opposed Mr. Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq.

Among the Senate’s 100 members, Mr. Hagel was the one who unleashed the most damning assessment after the president went on TV to announce the surge in 2007.

“I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam,” Mr. Hagel said on the Senate floor.

Yet today, even war critics acknowledge that the surge of U.S. troops, far from a historic blunder, turned the tide of battle.

Putting more forces into Iraqi neighborhoods near civilians reduced overall violence and allowed Mr. Obama to pull out all forces in 2011 with the hope that a democratic Baghdad would survive. The troop-exit schedule was negotiated by the Bush administration.

Mr. Biden, a surge naysayer like Mr. Obama, declared after a year as vice president that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”

In 2009, Mr. Obama kicked off his administration with two major foreign policy initiatives advocated by Mr. Hagel: an invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program and a tour of Muslim countries to repudiate the war policies of Mr. Bush.

It is Mr. Hagel’s views toward the Islamic extremists who run Iran that have stirred conservatives and pro-Israel groups to oppose him for defense secretary.

In his last two years in the Senate, Mr. Hagel used several forums to advocate talking to Iran with no strings attached: “I urge you to consider pursuing direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran,” Mr. Hagel said in a 2007 letter to Mr. Bush.

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