Charles “Chuck” Hagel was born in North Platte, Nebraska on October 4, 1946. He served in the U.S. Army infantry during 1967-68, and in the 1980s he co-founded Vanguard Cellular Systems, a publicly traded corporation that made him a multi-millionaire. In 1996 he was elected (as a Republican) to the United States Senate, where he served two terms (1997-2009) representing the state of Nebraska.
In 1998 Hagel disparaged then-President Bill Clinton‘s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel (a homosexual), as “openly, aggressively gay.” Questioning whether Hormel could “do an effective job” in that post, the senator said that ambassadors “are representing America” and “our lifestyle, our values, our standards,” and “I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay.”
In 2002 Hagel supported a Senate resolution authorizing the Iraq War. But as the conflict subsequently dragged on, he gradually came to view it as a failed and misguided endeavor headed by a “reckless” Republican president (George W. Bush). For one, Hagel adamantly opposed the enhanced interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists that took place under the Bush Administration. The senator called such tactics “not only wrong, but dangerous, and very dumb, and very short-sighted.” In June 2005, he said that a major reason why the U.S. was “losing the image war around the world” was because the Guantanamo Bay military prison had become “identifiable with … a part of America that people in the world believe is a power, an empire that pushes people around, we do it our way, we don’t live up to our commitments to multilateral institutions.”
In August 2005 Hagel depicted the Iraq War as a quagmire resembling the war in Vietnam four decades earlier. In late November 2006, he wrote an editorial in The Washington Post calling for a “phased troop withdrawal” of U.S. personnel from the battlefield, and asserting that continued military efforts were destined to achieve nothing more than a stalemate: “There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq.”
In January 2007, Hagel derided President Bush’s proposed “troop surge” in Iraq (which would ultimately prove to be a great success) as “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.” Characterizing the surge as “a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost,” Hagel joined Democratic Senators Joe Biden and Carl Levin in proposing, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a non-binding resolution declaring the surge to be “not in the national interest.” Such comments and actions helped make Hagel popular with the anti-war movement.
Following his April 2007 visit to Iraq with Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, Hagel described the situation there as “coming undone.” Claiming further that the post-Saddam Hussein government was growing “weaker by the day,” Hagel was one of just three Republican senators to support a Democratic bill calling for a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days.
In November 2007, Hagel publicly rated the Bush administration as “the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus—almost every area” of any presidency in the past forty years.
In July 2008 Hagel joined then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) in a congressional delegation to Iraq, where the group met with U.S. service members, General David Petraeus, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
When it was rumored in 2008 that presidential candidate Obama, who called Hagel “a great friend of mine,” might select the latter as either his vice president or secretary of defense, Hagel said he would absolutely consider serving in either capacity if asked.
Like his positions on the Iraq War, Hagel’s stance on Israel and Islamic terrorism also became a source of considerable controversy during his Senate tenure.
In 2009 Hagel co-authored a report titled “A Last Chance For A Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement.” It called for Israel to make “the hard compromises and painful concessions for peace,” without asking anything comparable from the Palestinian side. Indeed, the report warned against “the Jewish-American and Christian Zionist groups that feel comfortable amplifying the positions of Israeli politicians hostile to hard compromise and painful concession.”
The principal painful concession recommended in the report was a two-state solution that would result in Israel having to retreat largely behind the indefensible pre-June 1967 lines, with minor land swaps. (President Obama’s own proposal for a two-state solution mirrored this recommendation.)
Hagel’s report also endorsed a Jerusalem divided into two national capitals, “with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty.” (In reality, however, no such strict separation of populations existed throughout Jerusalem.) Meanwhile, under the terms proposed by Hagel’s report, Christian holy places would be administered by Palestine, despite the fact that widespread Palestinian abuse of Christians was well-documented.
Further, Hagel’s report recommended U.S. engagement with Hamas:
“In brief, shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might help clarify the movement’s views and test its behavior.”
Hagel has also sparked controversy with his comments and actions vis á vis Iran.
Similarly outspoken about Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime in Syria, Hagel in 2007 took issue with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s testimony (to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) that for the foreseeable future the Bush administration would not be negotiating with the Syrians because “they are not engaging in constructive behavior.” Said Hagel in response: “I don’t know how we could come up with any kind of a plan or focus, working with the United Nations or anyone else, if Iran and Syria are not included in that.”
In October 2009 Hagel told attendees at an J Street conference: “I believe there is a real possibility of a shift in Syria’s strategic thinking and policies…. Syria wants to talk—at the highest levels—and everything is on the table.”
Hagel’s words and actions regarding Israel, Iran, and Syria have earned him the esteem of such entities as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Iranian regime’s TVPress. Former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block says, “The record speaks for itself, on issues like consistently voting against sanctions on Iran to stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, against naming [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] a terrorist organization, refusing to call on the European Union to name Hezbollah—which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group in the world except Al Qaeda—as a terrorist organization.”
Hagel’s Senate career came to a close in January 2009, when he resigned from his seat after two terms in office. For an overview of his Senate voting record on numerous key issues, click here and here.
In a 2009 appearance on Al Jazeera, an interviewer said to Hagel: “We’ve got an email from Wendy Day … [who] writes, ‘Can the rest of the world be persuaded to give up their arsenal when the image of the United States is that of the world’s bully? Don’t we indeed need to change the perception and the reality before asking folks to lay down their arms, nuclear or otherwise?’” To this, Hagel replied: “Well, her observation is a good one and it’s relevant. Yes, to her question.”
In that same Al Jazeera interview, Hagel was asked about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. He responded: “How can we preach to other countries that you can’t have nuclear weapons but we can and our allies can? There is no credibility, there’s no logic to that argument.”
In October 2009, Barack Obama appointed Hagel as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. Shortly thereafter, Hagel published an op-ed in The Washington Post stating that “[w]e cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only ‘winning’ or ‘losing,’” because “Iraq and Afghanistan are not America’s to win or lose….”
After leaving his Intelligence Advisory Board position in 2011, Hagel publicly advised President Obama to begin “looking for the exit in Afghanistan” and “start winding this [war] down.” Adding that the Defense Department had become “bloated,” he stated: “In many ways I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”
In 2012, Hagel was one of six authors of the Global Zero Report, which repeatedly stated that the U.S. should consider making dramatic, unilateral reductions in its nuclear arsenal (from the 1,550 weapons authorized by the START II Treaty, to just 450). “These steps could be taken with Russia in unison,… negotiated in another round of bilateral arms reduction talks, or implemented unilaterally,” the report said. The Global Zero Report was strongly endorsed by President Obama, who said: “Global Zero will always have a partner in me and my administration.”
In December 2012, when Hagel was reportedly one of President Obama’s leading candidates for defense secretary, the former senator apologized for the disparaging remarks he had made 14 years earlier about James Hormel, a gay ambassadorial nominee. “My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” said Hagel. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”
At Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing on February 1, 2013, he was criticized for having failed to supply (for the senators) copies of speeches he had given during the preceding five years, and financial disclosure information detailing the sources of payments he may have collected from various groups for speaking engagements.
In early February 2013, a group of 14 retired U.S. admirals and generals signed a letter—addressed to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and that Committee’s ranking Republican, James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma)—expressing no confidence in Hagel for the post of defense secretary. Specifically, the signatories expressed concern about Hagel’s repeated refusal to support sanctions against Iran, and his assertion that a military strike against Iran “is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” Said the signatories: “This ill-advised statement telegraphs to Tehran that it should not fear a U.S. military response to the continued pursuit of Iranian nuclear weapons…. It would be unwise to confirm a nominee for Secretary of Defense who has already publicly taken that option off the table.”
The letter also expressed concern about:
On February 26, 2013, the Senate voted by a 58-41 margin to approve Hagel’s nomination. Democrats supported him unanimously; they were joined by 4 Republicans.
On June 19, 2013, Hagel delivered a speech at the University of Nebraska. Following the address, he took questions from the audience. When an Indian-born college professor was rising to ask him a question, Hagel said, “You’re not a member of the Taliban, are you?” The remark drew considerable media attention, particularly in light of an announcement earlier that week indicating that the United States and the Taliban were planning to hold diplomatic talks after nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan. Hagel “expressed regret for any trouble that this caused the professor,” his spokesman George Little told reporters.
In February 2014, it was reported that Hagel—in accordance with a $496 billion military spending cap negotiated two months earlier by President Obama and Congress—planned to reduce the number of U.S. Army personnel to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest force since 1940 and far below the post-9/11 peak of 570,000. Hagel’s proposals also included the elimination of the entire fleet of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft. A New York Times report noted:
“Pentagon officials acknowledge that budget cuts will impose greater risk on the armed forces if they are again ordered to carry out two large-scale military actions at the same time: Success would take longer, they say, and there would be a larger number of casualties. Officials also say that a smaller military could invite adventurism by adversaries.”
Hagel said “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
In late April 2014, while Russia was conducting military exercises along its border with Ukraine and threatening a full-blown invasion of that country, Pentagon officials tried to contact Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Hagel’s behalf. But Shoigu did not call Hagel back as was requested. “We have made it clear to the Russians that Secretary Hagel is available for a phone call at any time,” said a Pentagon spokesman. “We have reached out to them and made it very to them that he is willing to speak to his counterpart there at any time.”
On May 11, 2014—almost three years after the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning open homosexuals from serving in the U.S. military—Hagel told ABC’s This Week on Sunday that he was “open” to reviewing the military’s prohibition against transgender people in the armed forces. “The issue of transgender is a bit more complicated,” said Hagel. “It has a medical component to it. These issues require medical attention. I do think it continually should be reviewed. I’m open to that, by the way. I’m open to those assessments.” Hagel added that “every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have the opportunity, if they fit the qualifications.”
On November 24, 2014, Hagel, under pressure from President Obama, stepped down from his post as Defense Secretary. According to The New York Times, Obama administration officials “described Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Mr. Hagel … as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ…. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.”
For additional information on Chuck Hagel, click here.