POLITICS: PennAve

On The Slide: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel struggles on Syria

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Politics,Barack Obama,Syria,PennAve,Tim Mak,Pentagon,Chuck Hagel

This wasn’t the job Chuck Hagel signed up for.

When President Obama tapped Hagel, a former Republican senator, to be secretary of defense, Hagel was seen as embarking on a mission to manage a post-war draw-down, including reductions in Pentagon spending and the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan.

Months later, however, Hagel finds himself as one of the top presidential advisers charged with convincing Congress to authorize the use of military force against Syria, a task at odds with the cautious attitude toward the use of force Hagel developed as a young Army sergeant wounded while fighting in the Vietnam War.

“This old infantry sergeant thinks about when I was in Vietnam in 1968,” Hagel said several years ago in remarks repeatedly cited during his confirmation hearing. “Someone needs to represent that perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys who come back in the body bags.”

Hagel's discomfort with the new mission is often obvious.

When asked during a congressional hearing how Syria got the chemical weapons it used against its own citizens on Aug. 21, Hagel pointed a finger at Russia, forcing a furious backpedaling at the Pentagon.

"The Russians supply them," Hagel said. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."

The Pentagon quickly clarified his remarks, saying Hagel was referring to the exchange of conventional weapons between Syria and Russia and not leveling new charges against Russia for trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

Hagel has never been a sure hand in formal committee settings. During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, he fumbled a response on the Obama administration's position on the Iranian nuclear program. Notified by an aide that he had incorrectly outlined the White House’s position, he tried to make a correction — which itself was incorrect.

Hagel's apparent reluctance over the use of force in Syria may closely mirror the feelings of the Pentagon's uniformed leadership, but it has made him one of Obama's least effective advocates on Capitol Hill, where his former colleagues in the Senate first showed how they felt about Hagel by nearly derailing his nomination.

As Obama and his national security team scramble to build congressional support for a strike, Hagel’s fumbling in front of lawmakers did not help the situation.

His heart may simply not be in it. In January, Hagel told Congress that he did not even support providing lethal support to the armed opposition in Syria — something lawmakers were considering — and instead called for the use of humanitarian and diplomatic aid in Syria.

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