Under the most normal of circumstances, a president's selection of a new defense secretary is a significant decision. Overseeing the nation's military is, after all, a monumental task.
Ideally, presidents want someone running the Pentagon who understands the military's purposes and traditions but also comprehends the concept of civilian oversight and values political and diplomatic solutions as much as military ones.
But these are anything but normal circumstances. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who exhibits many of the ideal qualities listed above, is planning to leave office early next year. The Monterey Democrat was a stellar member of Congress for many years before becoming director of the CIA and then defense secretary. That résumé offers a background and credibility that will be difficult to replace.
However, we are pleased to hear that President Barack Obama has placed former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel at the top of the list of possible replacements.
The 66-year-old Hagel would bring much to the table.
As a decorated and wounded Vietnam combat veteran, Hagel possesses the necessary military understanding and credibility to handle the post.
As a former U.S. senator who was intimately involved in foreign policy, he clearly understands the political realities that can sometimes shape decisions affecting the military.
And as a moderate Republican who has earned a reputation for independent thinking and being exceptionally candid, Hagel would offer a perspective similar to that of Robert Gates, who served admirably under President George W. Bush and Obama.
Finally, Hagel has an established and friendly relationship with his former Senate colleague who now occupies the White House. While Hagel and Obama did not always agree, they did forge a friendship by working and traveling overseas together. It is that kind of trusting relationship that helps a president put his full faith in a Defense secretary.
Hagel initially supported the war in Iraq. But as a senator, Hagel made routine trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and became a significant critic of Bush's war policies because he felt they relied far too much on nation-building.
While Hagel would probably find strong support from his former colleagues in the Senate, he would probably be opposed by more conservative Jewish groups because Hagel has criticized the often discussed notion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan.
The next defense secretary will have to preside over the withdrawing of troops from Afghanistan and make some serious decisions about restructuring a pared-down military, all while keeping an eye on Iran, North Korea and Syria as well as Africa and the Pacific.
In short, the job of defense secretary is going to be even tougher than usual in the next few years. While we may not always agree with him -- and we most certainly don't -- we don't find his view of the world extreme or scary. In fact, we believe Chuck Hagel would be a solid choice to replace Panetta.