The Origins of Obama's Relationship With Chuck Hagel

Hagel and Obama
US Democratic presidental candidate Barack Obama (R) shares a laugh with US Senator Chuck Hagel R-Neb., as they tour the Citadel on Jul. 22, 2008, with the hillsides of Amman in the background. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty

In the lingo of Capitol Hill they’re known as “codels.” Members of Congress go on congressional delegations to war zones and foreign capitals to burnish their national-security credentials and try their hand at personal diplomacy. The public often hears about them when congressmen are caught on TV playing golf or sipping a Mai Tai poolside, their trip exposed as a taxpayer-funded boondoggle. But sometimes they serve an important purpose, allowing politicians to grasp the nuances of a complicated foreign-policy issue or giving members a respite from the poisonous partisan climate in Washington.

One such time was July 2008, when Sens. Barack Obama, Chuck Hagel, and Jack Reed traveled together to Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps not a great premise for a buddy movie, but it was an intense bonding experience nonetheless. They delved deeply into policy discussions—“wonkfests,” as one former aide called them; shared personal stories from their vastly different backgrounds; and ribbed each other to pass the time on cramped military planes. (Obama teased Hagel for traveling to the battle zone in polished penny loafers.)

For Obama it was an opportunity to see Hagel, with whom he’d developed a kinship on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in action. As people on the trip remember it, the future president was struck by Hagel’s rapport with the enlisted men and women they met throughout the trip. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam vet, mingled with the soldiers with ease and authenticity. “The troops knew he’d been in the line of fire,” recalls Reed. “He connected with them not on an intellectual level but on a deep emotional basis.”

Obama, said Reed and others, noticed something else about Hagel, too: for all of his empathy toward the grunts, he could be a hard-ass with their commanders. In Baghdad, the senators were briefed by Gen. David Petraeus, then the commanding officer of all U.S. forces in Iraq. A virtuoso briefer, Petraeus poured it on with elaborate charts and slides, all aimed at showing that the “surge” of troops in Iraq was working. Violence was down and stability up. But it was too soon to begin a rapid drawdown of troops, the general warned, bolstering his case with a blizzard of stats and metrics.

A former aide recalls that the senators received the presentation with “a heavy dose of skepticism.” And as Petraeus rambled on, they began to grow impatient. Finally, Hagel cut the general off. They hadn’t traveled halfway across the world for a one-way conversation, he said. They had a message they wanted to deliver: with the economy in a tailspin and the patience of the American public growing thin, the era of perpetual occupations was drawing to a close. This war was going to end. By then, Obama was the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee and, all the polls indicated, Petraeus’s soon-to-be commander in chief. “It was a helpful intervention,” says Reed dryly.

Flash forward four and a half years, and an ideological firestorm is underway in Washington thanks to Obama’s decision to nominate Hagel as secretary of defense. Conservative groups have questioned Hagel’s commitment to Israel and whether he’d be tough enough on Iran. His defenders have responded that Hagel’s worldview—he favors shrinking the defense budget and is generally skeptical about the use of force—will provide a needed counterweight to hawks both in and out of government.

But this debate—while certainly relevant to the nomination—has also overshadowed some of the other reasons why Hagel might have been chosen. Obama and Hagel do share a worldview, but it would have been easy enough to find other candidates who met that test. More elusive was a nominee with the intangible personal qualities that Hagel brings to the job, qualities that were on display during that 2008 trip to the Middle East: an ability to draw on his own military service in speaking about war, and a blunt willingness to stand up to anyone, including the military’s top brass. Obama undoubtedly believes these traits will prove valuable in his secretary of defense, ­given the challenges that lie ahead for the ­Pentagon—from ending the war in Afghanistan to streamlining the budget in an age of austerity. And they also may help to explain why, over the years, he and Hagel have formed such an enduring professional bond.

When Barack Obama came to Washington in 2005, he was a more than just a rising politician. He was a cultural phenomenon who breathed new life into a political class that seemed moribund. What Chuck Hagel noticed was perhaps a little less sexy, but no less perceptive. According to a former Hagel aide, he was struck that Obama’s first committee choice was Foreign Relations and that he seemed to genuinely care about diplomacy. (Hagel too had joined the panel when he was first elected in 1996, a time when it was a bit of a backwater under North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.) Obama was studious and dug deeply into complicated issues like nuclear nonproliferation; during his first year he traveled to Moscow with Republican Sen. Dick Lugar, a trip that focused on controlling the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. As it happened, Hagel was in Moscow on a separate “codel” at the time. Invited to a dinner hosted by the American ambassador, William J. Burns, the three senators stayed up deep into the night discussing policy.

FE05-hagel-klaidman-second Chuck Hagel (right) with his brother Tom in Vietnam, circa 1968. Library of Congress

Hagel and Lugar, both foreign-policy realists with an appreciation for international cooperation, became two of Obama’s closest colleagues and mentors in the Senate. With Hagel and Obama, there was an ease to the relationship that Hagel’s aides say their occasionally cantankerous boss did not always have with other colleagues.

Ironically, the reason may have been generational. Hagel was one of just a small handful of Vietnam vets serving in Congress, and the fact that most of his peers had managed to stay out of the war introduced a certain level of tension in his relationships—especially when the subject of committing American troops to combat came up. “Chuck and I came of age during a volatile time and a lot of our contemporaries for whatever reason didn’t serve,” says Senator Reed, a former Army Ranger and West Point graduate who spent 12 years in active duty but didn’t see combat.

Even Hagel’s relationships with colleagues who fought in Vietnam could be fraught. John McCain had been a mentor of sorts, and Hagel had supported his ill-fated presidential bid in 2000. But after the two vets later split over the Iraq War they traded searing accusations about the impact of their experiences. Hagel suggested that having been isolated in a North Vietnamese prison cell—albeit tortured by his captors—McCain could not perceive the overall cost of the war. For his part, McCain shot back that Hagel was, in effect, a prisoner of his own Vietnam experience, skewing his judgments about international affairs and the use of force. With Obama, Reed says, the relationship was “unencumbered” by those questions. “The issue of whether you were in Vietnam just didn’t come up.”

But if Vietnam was a factor in driving Hagel toward Obama, it also likely drove Obama toward Hagel. By the time Obama came to Washington, Congress was a free-fire zone over the Iraq War. Hagel, who had reluctantly voted to authorize force, had begun to sour on the conflict. Obama too opposed the war, but unlike Hagel, he had no military experience, no personal basis from which he could speak about matters of war and peace. For Obama, his bond over Iraq with Hagel—a man who still carried shrapnel in his chest and who could talk to the troops as if he were still one of them—was undoubtedly affirming.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes recalls that the Obama-Hagel pairing on the 2008 trip to Iraq and Afghanistan was no accident. (Rhodes was working for the campaign at the time.) “There was a lot of thought given to who would travel with [Obama] in ’08,” he says. “The president personally wanted it to be Hagel.”

Charles Timothy Hagel grew up in western Nebraska, a part of the country so remote that one of the towns called itself “The Middle of Nowhere.” His grandfather was a World War I vet, and his father fought in the Pacific during World War II. He and his brothers were shaped by an old-fashioned Midwestern conservatism, bred with a sense of humility and duty to country. Legion Clubs and other veteran-support groups were a central part of their community. “If someone would have told me in 1969 that 40 some years later a liberal Democratic president would have appointed Chuck Hagel, a very conservative guy, to even dogcatcher I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Tom Hagel, Chuck’s brother, told me this past week.

Hagel volunteered for the Army in 1967, and a few months later he was in Vietnam. Soon thereafter his brother Tom joined up and, in an unusual twist, was assigned to the same unit as Chuck. The two brothers saw some of the most intense fighting of 1967 and 1968. As infantrymen, or ground-pounders, they “walked point” near the Cambodian border doing search-and-destroy missions and engaging the enemy on a regular basis. In March of 1968, the brothers were on patrol when a soldier at the front of the column set off a booby trap; shrapnel exploded around them. Chuck was a bloody mess. His brother wrapped cloths around his chest to stop the bleeding, likely saving his life.

FE05-hagel-klaidman-third Senators Edward Kennedy, left, D-Mass, Chuck Hagel, center, R-Neb, and John McCain, right, R-Ariz, on Capitol Hill, Feb. 12, 2004 in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

About a month later it was Chuck’s turn to save his brother’s life. They were riding together in an armored vehicle when a mine went off just after they’d passed through a village. The flash of the explosion seared Chuck’s face and his eardrums were punctured. Tom had been knocked unconscious; Chuck, protecting his brother with his own body, pulled Tom from the burning wreckage to safety.

The bang-bang moments were the most dramatic. But nothing, according to Hagel’s biographer, haunts his memory more than the night outposts. Firefights happen quickly, with too much adrenaline rushing to feel the fear. By contrast, the hunt for enemy troop movements in the pitch-dark jungle unfolded slowly and terrifyingly. One time when Hagel stood watch while the other soldiers slept, he heard a large group of Viet Cong moving through the jungle. They were so close he could hear them whispering in Vietnamese.

The brothers returned from Vietnam with a stack of medals and divergent views of the war. Tom was enraged at his government and wracked with guilt over the suffering he’d caused; eventually, his politics turned sharply to the left. (And when I spoke to Tom this week, he didn’t hold back in his criticism of Republicans: “There’s a group of Republicans in Congress,” he said, “who if Obama nominated Jesus Christ, they would find something wrong with him, solely because Obama nominated him.”) But Chuck was less introspective than Tom about Vietnam. For years he maintained that the war was fought for a noble cause, even if it had gone awry.

It would take a long time for Chuck to begin reevaluating this position. Tom says the “trigger point” for his brother came in 1999, when he heard newly released tapes of Lyndon Johnson acknowledging that he was continuing to send troops to fight in a lost cause because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing the war.

But it wasn’t until the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq that the emotional dam burst for Hagel. Vietnam, which he now believed was built on a foundation of lies and deceit, became Hagel’s frame of reference for Iraq. He was increasingly indignant about politicians who, ignorant of the true horrors of combat, would send Americans off to fight wars of choice and not necessity. “It’s interesting to me that many of those who want to rush the country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war,” he told Newsweek in 2002. “They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit.”

Around the same time, a still-obscure state senator in Illinois was sounding many of the same notes as Hagel. Obama didn’t oppose all wars but he opposed dumb wars, he said in a speech in October 2002: “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt ... by weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives and in hardships borne.”

By the time Obama arrived in the Senate, Hagel was feverishly excavating the past—reading every book about Vietnam he could get his hands on, becoming increasingly obsessed with the parallels to Iraq. And by 2007, he was making intemperate remarks about the administration’s policies, even telling a reporter for Esquire that the impeachment of George W. Bush should be an option. Hagel’s digs drew a scornful response from another paragon of bluntness in the Republican Party. “I firmly believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: thou shall not speak ill of another Republican,” Vice President Dick Cheney told Newsweek at the time. “But it’s very hard to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved.” Hagel had contemplated running for president, but in the end, having alienated many in his party and unwilling to run as an independent, he stayed out of the race. He retired from the Senate in 2008.

After Obama was elected president, it didn’t take him long to turn to Hagel for advice. Even before taking office he tapped him for a sensitive national-­security mission. Along with former senator David Boren, Hagel traveled to CIA headquarters at Langley for a series of briefings on the array of covert operations being run by the spies. According to several participants, the meetings were tense, as intelligence officials argued in favor of holding onto controversial programs, like enhanced interrogation techniques. Absolutely not, Hagel and Boren shot back: torture was a stain on America’s reputation.

Hagel’s willingness to stand up to both the CIA and the generals will surely prove useful to Obama. Then again, he hasn’t been afraid to criticize Obama, either. As a sitting member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, he has publicly said that he opposed the administration’s surge in Afghanistan and raised questions about whether Obama’s limited intervention in Libya was in the national interest. The White House, however, says that’s a benefit, not a drawback. “He hasn’t been shy about voicing his differences, and that’s completely fine,” says Rhodes. “When Hagel speaks his mind, he’s really telling you what he believes, and that’s a characteristic the president likes.”

Obama alluded to this quality when he formally announced Hagel’s nomination earlier this week. But it was at the end of the event—when, according to an aide, Obama had departed from his prepared remarks and was ad-­libbing—that the president gestured toward perhaps the most important reason he wants Hagel at the Pentagon: his nominee, he said, is one of those “who have been in the field, who have been in the heat of the battle, who understand the consequences of the decisions we make in this town ... That’s something invaluable.”

Daniel Klaidman is a special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

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