WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama appears poised to name two decorated Vietnam War combat veterans to his cabinet in the coming days -- Democratic Senator John Kerry for secretary of state and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.
Both men's time on the battlefield in Vietnam more than 40 years ago has shaped their world view. If they are indeed nominated and confirmed, their war experience is expected to have an impact on the policies America pursues in the next four years.
The 69-year old Kerry, a nearly 30-year Senate veteran and head of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rose to the top of the White House's list after Obama’s reported top choice, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, removed herself from consideration.
Rice had been engulfed in political controversy after she made inaccurate remarks about the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Hagel left the Senate in 2008 after serving 12 years. An independent minded member of the Republican Party, he alienated some in the party with his fierce criticism of President George W. Bush's Iraq and Afghan war policies.
Kerry, who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2004, wanted the top position at State after Obama was elected in 2008, but was passed over for Hillary Clinton. Since then, he has served as Obama’s envoy on high-profile diplomatic missions, including to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was also Obama’s point person on the new START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
Kerry is known for his gravitas and ability to calm diplomatic tensions, as he did in Pakistan following the killing of Osama bin Laden, as well as his ability to forge strong relationships, as he has done with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
He also has deep bipartisan support in Congress. Republican Senator Bob Corker (Tennessee) said Kerry would bring “a world of knowledge” to the post and be “someone that Congress will want to work with in a very positive way.” Republican Senator John McCain joined Kerry’s call for a no-fly zone in Libya.
Both Kerry and Hagel’s political views were shaped by their experience in Vietnam -- a drawn out, bloody, and, ultimately, futile U.S. war. Each has cautioned against military action and in favor of diplomacy.
Kerry argued against the 1991 Gulf War and caused a minor scandal when he referred to the Iraq war as “a mess.” During the 2012 presidential campaign, he attacked Republican presidential nominee candidate Mitt Romney for talking about a potential war with Iran, saying, “Talk has consequences, particularly when it’s talk about war."
When he returned from Vietnam, Kerry became an antiwar activist, and in 1971, delivered a blistering critique of America’s military strategy while testifying at a Senate committee hearing.
In a speech that would help launch his political career, Kerry said he and his fellow soldiers had been “given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history” and “returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.”
“We are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam, about the mystical war against communism," he said. "We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace.”
Opposed To 'Dumb War'
The 66-year-old Hagel is also a war critic. His views on America’s military role in the world are closely aligned to those of Obama's, who first gained national attention when he said in a 2002 speech, "I don't oppose all wars...what I am opposed to is a dumb war."
In a radio interview earlier this year, Hagel said the Arab Spring has shown that people must be free to choose their own governments and suggested that the United States made some wrong choices in the region.
“Over the years, the United States and other allies have sometimes opted for, ‘Well let’s go with the secure equation here, rather than democracy or rather than freedom,’" he said. "But again, it has to come from within. The United States can’t impose democracy, we can’t impose our will. The Russians found that out in Afghanistan. We’ve been involved in two very costly wars that have taught us a lesson once again. We tried it in Vietnam, it didn’t work. It never will work. Eventually, the people will make the decisions that they must make. So we must always be on the right side here, and that’s for the individual and for freedom.”
Like Obama, Hagel favors diplomatic talks with Iran. In a recent speech at the Atlantic Council, which he leads, he said, “Engagement is not surrender. It’s not appeasement … [but] an opportunity to better understand” others.
Like both Kerry and Obama, Hagel has criticized talk of war with Iran. In 2008 said he was “very upset” by his colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain’s talk of a military attack on that country.
Where Hagel and Obama part ways is on the usefulness of unilateral sanctions. As a senator, Hagel opposed increasing U.S. sanctions on Iran, and he was against sanctions regimes on North Korea, Libya, and Cuba.
Speaking to “The New York Times” in 2007 about how the Bush administration sold the idea of invading Iraq to Americans, he said: “The dishonesty of it was astounding -- criminal, really. I came to the conclusion that they used those people, used our young people. So I am very careful, especially now. We’d better ask all the tough questions. This [Bush] administration dismissed every tough question we asked. We were assured, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ That’s what they said in Vietnam.”
Hagel also opposed Obama’s decision to send a troop surge to Afghanistan, comparing it to the U.S. military surge in Vietnam.
“It’s easy to get into war, not so easy to get out," he wrote in "The Washington Post” in 2009. "We cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only ‘winning’ or ‘losing.’ Iraq and Afghanistan are not America’s to win or lose.”