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WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said he was sending the U.S. military "one of its own" Monday as he selected decorated Vietnam combat veteran Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon as it scales back spending and winds down a decade of war.
A former Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel would be the first enlisted military member to become secretary of defense, and Obama called him "the leader our troops deserve."
"In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength," Obama said as he introduced Hagel at a White House news conference. "They see one of their own," who will champion veterans and military families.
An Army infantry sergeant who risked his life to pull his younger brother to safety while both were serving in Vietnam, Hagel would bring to the job a gritty view of war and the independent temperament to express those views.
He is known as a contrarian Republican moderate who was a fierce critic of the Bush administration's war policies and he is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Long the frontrunner for the Pentagon job, Hagel, 66, forged a strong personal relationship with Obama in the Senate, including overseas trips they took together. And he carved out a reputation as an independent thinker and blunt speaker.
"In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom," said Obama. "And that's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team, a recognition that when it comes to the defense of our country, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans."
Hagel has also suggested he won't be shy in disagreeing with the commander-in-chief and his outspoken nature has already given some senators, who will confirm his nomination, pause.
"I do think Obama's done a good job overall. There are a lot of things I don't agree with him on; he knows it," Hagel told the foreign policy website Al-Monitor last March.
Wounded during the Vietnam War, Hagel initially backed the invasion of Iraq, but later became a credible critic of the wars, making routine trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He opposed President George W. Bush's plan to send an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq — a move that has been credited with stabilizing the chaotic country — as "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out."
While Hagel supported the Afghanistan war resolution, over time he has become more critical of the decade-plus conflict, with its complex nation-building effort.
Often seeing the Afghan war through the lens of his service in Vietnam, Hagel has declared that militaries are "built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations." In a radio interview this year, he spoke broadly of the need for greater diplomacy as the appropriate path in Afghanistan, noting that "the American people want out" of the war.
In an October interview with the online Vietnam Magazine, Hagel said he remembers telling himself in 1968 in Vietnam, "If I ever get out of this and I'm ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war."
If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta has long made it clear he intended to leave the job early this year, after serving in the post for about 18 months.
To political and defense insiders, Obama's preference for Hagel makes sense.
The former senator shares many of the same ideals of Obama's first Pentagon leader, Republican Robert Gates. When Obama became president in 2009, he asked Gates to remain as defense secretary. Both Hagel and Gates talk of the need for global answers to regional conflicts and an emphasis on so-called soft power, including economic and political aid, to bolster weak nations.
"A Hagel nomination signals an interest in, and a commitment to continuing a bipartisan approach to national security," said David Berteau, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said Hagel's two terms in the Senate, before he retired in 2009, spanned the latter years of the post-Cold War military drawdown and the post-Sept. 11 buildup. "From a budget point of view he has seen both ends of the spectrum and that gives him a good perspective to start from."
Hagel's possible selection has been met with mixed reviews. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Hagel would be "terrific."
But Republicans have said he faces tough questions, with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham declaring Hagel would be "the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation's history."
Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran and spoken of the influence of the "Jewish lobby" on Congress. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan.
"The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
In comments to the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star, Hagel said critics have "completely distorted" his record, insisting he has backed sanctions against Iran and demonstrated total support for Israel.
The National Jewish Democratic Council issued a statement Monday saying it trusts that Hagel "will follow the president's lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel," including "leading the world against Iran's nuclear program."
Hagel often straddled party lines and had some high-profile dustups with his Republican colleagues.
In 2008, he criticized GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, saying she lacked foreign policy credentials and that it would be "a stretch" to consider her qualified to become president. His wife, Lilibet Hagel, endorsed Obama in his first run for president. Hagel also was mentioned as a possible candidate for Pentagon chief when Obama was first elected.
As defense secretary, Hagel would preside over the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan and the waning days of the war, and would direct some of the steepest cuts in Pentagon spending in years. His task would be to restructure a pared down military that can step away from the grinding wars of the past 11 years and refocus on a swath of regional challenges from Syria, Iran and North Korea to terrorism in Africa and the defense buildup in the Pacific.
His experience and his allies on Capitol Hill will work to his benefit.
"Certainly his name coming forward is one I'm very open to," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who served with Hagel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I had good relations with him while he was in the Senate. Certainly (he's) a veteran and someone who also spent a lot of time around the world understanding the relations other countries have with the U.S. and vice versa."
Defense analyst Loren Thompson, of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think tank, said Hagel knows the political system and is known for thinking outside the box, which would help as budget cuts move forward.
"He's a veteran who understands how Congress works and has stayed plugged in to developments in defense policy," Thompson said. "He is not tied to the status quo and will think creatively about how to manage America's military forces."
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
Lolita C. Baldor can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lbaldor