The E-ring has seen its share of men who triumphed on the ballot and got gobbled up in one of the world's biggest bureaucracies, where political skills are helpful but not as much as sheer organizational or budgetary mastery.
So while senators may pepper Hagel's confirmation hearing Thursday morning with questions that have dominated the public debate so far -- over whether he harbors views that are anti-Israel and anti-gay -- they may skip the toughest question that's gone largely unaddressed: Can he tame the building and command the world's most lethal war machine?
Defense experts say Hagel, if confirmed, will face major challenges in wrangling a sprawling institution and working with partners to implement President Barack Obama's policies. That would be the case for anyone taking the top civilian defense post, but Hagel would walk in without the bureaucratic expertise of his predecessors.
"America is at a delicate moment of transition in defense policy and spending," said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. "Sen. Hagel has not proposed serious alternatives during these, or other, defense policy fights; nor has he made any significant contribution -- either in office or out -- to the even more fundamental questions about the future of U.S. defense posture, the shape and function of the defense establishment, or chronic and complicated spending problems at the Pentagon."
Hegseth went on to call Hagel's service in Vietnam and later work on veterans issues "unquestioned."
"Both of these facts would make him a great secretary of Veterans Affairs, but not necessarily secretary of defense," he said. "Sen. Hagel is the wrong man at the wrong time to lead the Department of Defense."
To be sure, Hagel, 66, would bring to the job a dedication to looking at war from the eyes of the soldier, a long history of working on veterans issues and a worldview that the president liked when the two men traveled together as members of the Foreign Relations Committee.
His personal disclosure forms released this week also show he has ties to the business and financial communities.
But he would also be called on to make tough choices that are sure to rankle some in an institution where the permanent bureaucracy can make life difficult for a temporary administration.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, has played at the edges of defense policy in his decades in Washington. He served as deputy administrator of the Veterans Affairs under President Ronald Reagan before a dispute with his boss led him to resign, provided oversight of the State Department and spy agencies as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees and headed up the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank in his post-Senate career.
Hands-on national security experience? Not as much.
And the history of pols-turned-Pentagon-chiefs offers at least one cautionary tale.
The most glaring is Les Aspin, a longtime congressman tapped by Bill Clinton to rein in the Pentagon budget. Aspin resigned after 18 American soldiers died in a disastrous Somali raid later depicted in the film, "Black Hawk Down."
During a series of Senate hearings on the fiasco in Mogadishu, Aspin testified that he'd made a mistake in turning down Gen. Colin Powell's request for armored vehicles.
At the time, U.S.News & World Report wrote that Aspin's problem was "neither his famously unmilitary bearing nor his inability to discipline himself or the enormous Pentagon bureaucracy -- it is his politician's instinct for the middle ground on defense issues."
Caspar Weinberger held several top positions in Washington -- he ran the Federal Trade Commission, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now named Health and Human Services) -- before he became defense secretary in 1981. Weinberger was seen as a ruthless cost cutter, able to manage large bureaucracies but instead helped build up the military during the booming Reagan era and resigned over the Iran-Contra affair in 1987.
Hagel hasn't been a top official in the Department of Defense or at another major agency (Harold Brown, Frank Carlucci and Elliot Richardson fit that bill); he hasn't run the CIA (Panetta, Robert Gates and James Schlesinger were the nation's top spies); and he wasn't a force on one of the two Armed Services committees on the Hill (like Melvin Laird and Aspin).
And it's not any normal time at the Pentagon for Hagel. If confirmed, he would be taking over as the Pentagon faces massive budget cuts, whether or not the indiscriminate ax of planned "sequestration" cuts take effect or are replaced by more targeted reductions. Cutting fat -- and perhaps meat -- can be an unpleasant task for anyone charged with running a national security agency. But Hagel's charge will be to improve the nation's defense with less money.
"The beast that I think is particularly important now and is always important but has been less focused on for the last decade or so is the management side," said Stan Soloway, CEO of Professional Services Council and former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition reform under Defense Secretary William Cohen.
"It's more than just managing the budget. Defense faces some massive challenges for X number of years, whether or not there's sequestration, we're still looking at a flat defense budget and no dramatic change in mission," Soloway said. "I think one of the things the next secretary has to focus on is getting back to some core questions about how do we rethink, from a management and organizational approach, how we can best optimize those resources, and that is sometimes the most difficult thing to do."
Hagel's opposition to imposing certain sanctions on Iran has come to the fore since his name surfaced for the job because many analysts believe that the United States may have to decide sooner rather than later whether to let that nation progress toward the development of a nuclear weapon or strike military to stop it.
Some national security experts believe that it is important for Obama to have voices in the Situation Room that don't always follow conventional Washington wisdom.
"Hagel's style works better for Obama's second term than it would have for Obama's first term," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. "Obama's got his sea legs now and he's considered most of the big issues. Also he's got this looming big decision on the use of force against Iran, which I actually think is a bigger tougher decision than he's made on any issue so far in national security, and I think there's a certain amount of groupthink in the country that says he needs to get tough with Iran, and so on this issue, maybe above most others, I would welcome Hagel's contrarian thinking."
In a blog post, O'Hanlon described himself as "favorably inclined" toward confirmation.
Like Laird, who led the Defense Department as the Vietnam War -- and the draft -- ended, Hagel would preside over a transformative period for the military.
"He was extraordinary, the way he dealt with Kissinger and Nixon, which were two pretty wily characters. He really kind of laid the groundwork for the Reagan renaissance," said Jim Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policies at The Heritage Foundation.
While Hagel's critics hammer him on comments he's made in the past about gays and Israel, others are looking to see whether he'll be able to set the Pentagon on a new course after more than a decade of war and blank checks.
"My concerns are not that he might not support gays or that he might not be the best friend of Israel. I think on both of those fronts, he's going to be spectacular," said Bill White, former president of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York and a former candidate for Navy secretary. White, who is openly gay, has known Hagel for 20 years. "My concern is, is he going to be a good secretary of defense on the other fronts? Like, can this guy get the bureaucracy of the Pentagon under control and be able to manage the finances efficiently -- meaning make cuts while being strong on national security. And I think that's why Obama picked this guy, because he's perfect for that."
Hagel's supporters say that he will easily win the respect of the troops because he enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War and because he has been a champion for veterans.
Hagel is "a guy on the ground who understands that his job is to make sure we save as many American lives as possible while still executing our mission in Afghanistan," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan and now serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Combat experience means that Hagel won't be "as detached as previous secretaries," Hunter said.
But views are mixed on whether combat experience makes a better defense secretary.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, said combat experience isn't "a requirement to be secretary of defense, but I think that when you have someone as secretary of defense who's been in uniform, he comes in with a deeper understanding of the implications of high-level decisions."
"In particular, with Sen. Hagel's experience in Vietnam, I think he's got a perspective we haven't had before in a secretary of defense. He served in combat, in sacrifice, in an unpopular war," Clark said.
It's easy to want to compare Hagel to those who have served before him. Will he be more like Gates or Rumsfeld? Weinberger or Cohen?
"I don't think there's a mold," Soloway said. "I think a number of different types of people could be successful at it."
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