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A sea change on defense

Washington observers would have been hard-pressed to foresee the current Mr. Hagel when he arrived in the Senate in 1997 as a solid conservative bent on a strong armed force.

A Vietnam War veteran and entrepreneur, Mr. Hagel launched his Senate campaign on a theme that President Clinton had cut the military budget too deeply. He endorsed a Senate Republican plan to add $23 billion to Mr. Clinton’s Pentagon budget.

“A strong national defense is the cornerstone and the backbone of American foreign policy. It is the guarantor of our foreign policy,” he said, according to the Journal Star of Lincoln, Neb.

Mr. Clinton cut the Army to 482,000 soldiers. Mr. Hagel now is endorsing an even smaller force.

Mr. Hagel on Monday questioned future U.S. military dominance, saying the “development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the sea, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”

Gordon Adams, a White House defense budget official in the Clinton administration, said Mr. Hagel is a “moderate Republican” who is doing the same thing Republican presidents have done after a war: conduct a military drawdown.

“I don’t really think he’s transformed,” Mr. Adams said. “You are at the point in time in history that you are in. You are in the point of political geography that you are in. I never saw Chuck Hagel as a hawk at any point in time.”

Mr. Adams, who attended a Hagel briefing Tuesday at the Pentagon with other outside defense analysts, added: “It seemed very clear to me from the very start that Obama brought in Chuck Hagel to be his man in overseeing the defense drawdown. This is something we’ve done before. I don’t see him as anti-defense, not in the least.”

A Biden loyalist

When Mr. Hagel arrived in Washington, an article in the Lincoln newspaper said: “Hagel described himself as a staunch supporter of reducing government and reducing taxes. But he said he is very concerned about the United States’ role in the world. He said that recent military spending cuts have threatened the nation’s defenses and have placed veterans in poor financial condition.”

After his first term, a Senate source said, Mr. Hagel complained that the Washington press corps paid little attention to him. That changed when the Republican senator turned on Mr. Bush and zeroed in on the cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We are finally getting to the point where the American people are getting a sense of this, and I think most of my colleagues are getting to the point where they are just not going to put up with it anymore,” he said in March 2006.

He became an even louder critic after Mr. Bush announced the 2007 Iraq troop surge.

“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.

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