Who is Chuck Hagel, again?

The SecDef sweepstakes are heating up and the latest word from administration officials — none of whom speak on record of course — is that President Obama is close to making his choice to succeed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. On the “short-list” for real now is Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, ...

LESLIE E. KOSSOFF/AFP/Getty Images
LESLIE E. KOSSOFF/AFP/Getty Images
LESLIE E. KOSSOFF/AFP/Getty Images

The SecDef sweepstakes are heating up and the latest word from administration officials -- none of whom speak on record of course -- is that President Obama is close to making his choice to succeed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

On the “short-list” for real now is Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, Vietnam veteran and military advocate, and head of the Atlantic Council, a NATO-focused think tank.

Hagel has long enjoyed a reputation for being a level-headed, smart mind on foreign affairs and national security issues, which means that he’s been a darling of the Democratic caucus and a thorn in the side of conservative Republicans. This year he told The Cable the Republican party had veered too far right.

The SecDef sweepstakes are heating up and the latest word from administration officials — none of whom speak on record of course — is that President Obama is close to making his choice to succeed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

On the “short-list” for real now is Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, Vietnam veteran and military advocate, and head of the Atlantic Council, a NATO-focused think tank.

Hagel has long enjoyed a reputation for being a level-headed, smart mind on foreign affairs and national security issues, which means that he’s been a darling of the Democratic caucus and a thorn in the side of conservative Republicans. This year he told The Cable the Republican party had veered too far right.

In 2007, Hagel announced he would not run to keep his Senate seat, after a long spell of criticizing the Bush adminsiration and Republican Party over the Iraq war. Hagel was so widely regarded the time that headlines called it a “conditional retirement,” believing Washington had not heard the last of him. It also immediately fueled speculation of a presidential run. He passed on that effort, but in 2008 Hagel’s name was kept afloat as Obama’s possible running mate.

Instead, Hagel became chairman of the Atlantic Council, where his duties have kept him front and center with the likes of Bono and Bill Clinton and other global dignitaries and military leaders. The group’s annual awards dinner is a who’s who of military and international affairs glitterati.

He’s not kept completely out of politics, accepting a slot shortly after Obama’s inauguration on the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board and as cochairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. (The Democratic president, that is.)

One hiccup for Hagel’s bid: Obama’s first defense secretary was a Republican, Robert Gates. After less than two years under Panetta, does the White House worry about the apparently very thin bench of Democratic candidates to head the military while the Afghanistan war continues to rage? Inside the Pentagon, Hagel’s name is drawing more skeptical smirks than nods of approval. Other than Hagel, the top names are now Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), whom most feel wants the Secretary of State job shouldUnited Nations Amb. Susan Rice’s candidacy fail and two “in the building” candidates little known to the public and creating little inspiration at Washington water coolers: Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Michelle Flournoy, the former Pentagon policy chief.

Hagel, once a loud independent voice on Capitol Hill, has kept relatively quiet since his retirement. His return to politics via the River Entrance surely would shake some foundations in this town, if theman-in-the-middle is tossed between Democrats and Republicans, who when it comes to defense spending, ending the war in Afghanistan, closing Guantanamo or interjecting in the Middle East, appear as entrenched as ever.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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