Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, is one of the few senior figures in either Congress or the Bush administration to have been in combat. While many of them deferred their service, like the chief hawk, Vice President Dick Cheney, or did a short spell on home soil in the National Guard, like George Bush, Hagel spent time in the mud of Vietnam as infantry seargant.
This experience explains why he is one of the leading opponents in Bush's own party of the Iraq war. When the president announced his decision in January to increase the number of US troops in Iraq by 21,500, Hagel's comment was one of the most widely quoted in the media. He called the troop surge "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."
Hagel, 60, has not yet announced that he will seek his party's nomination for the 2008 presidential race, but there were few people who heard him speak last week in Nora's, one of Washington's favourite political restaurants, who doubted he intends to run. He was speaking at one of the capital's best-known salons, run by Steve Clemon, head of a centrist thinktank, the New America Foundation. Clemons is one of the city's great networkers, with friends across the city and across the parties.
About 30 people joined Hagel and Clemons upstairs at Nora's: senate staffers, policy wonks, businessmen and journalists. It is an egalitarian salon: no reserved seating and questions open to anyone. Hagel spoke for about 20 minutes on the record and took questions, off the record, for the remainder of the dinner. He sounds like John Wayne and has the same brash self-confidence, but does not share the late actor's rightwing, gung-ho opinions. In fact, Hagel is an unusual Republican, with a complex set of views, conservative on many issues but so liberal on others he could pass for a Democrat...
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