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Hagel sworn in, now the hard part begins

Analysis: Chuck Hagel is now secretary of defense, but with a world of trouble awaiting him, he may wonder whether he really wants the job.

Hagel sworn in 2013 02 27Enlarge
As his wife Lilibet holds the bible, Chuck Hagel is sworn into office as the 24th secretary of defense at the Pentagon on Feb. 27. (Chad J. McNeeley/Defense Department/Getty Images)

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Early Wednesday morning, Chuck Hagel was sworn in as defense secretary, in a small private ceremony at the Pentagon.

It may be the last fun he has for quite a while.

In short order he will be confronted with a host of intractable foreign policy challenges: orchestrating an honorable and dignified end to the war in Afghanistan; dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions; determining a sensible and humane means of helping Syria out of its brutal civil war; and keeping the nation safe in the face of looming and potentially devastating cuts to the defense budget.

It won’t be easy.

Hagel, a former Republican two-term senator from Nebraska, takes office bruised and battered by weeks of ugly wrangling that arguably did as much damage to the Senate as to the nominee. His former colleagues were so intent on blocking Hagel’s confirmation that they resorted to embarrassing, even bizarre tactics.

It was bad enough when a conservative media outlet, citing Senate sources, suggested that Hagel was linked to a sinister-sounding but non-existent organization called “Friends of Hamas.”

On Tuesday, as the inevitability of Hagel’s confirmation became evident, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., tried by tortuous logic to insinuate Hagel was a Holocaust denier.

After announcing he had just seen “Schindler’s List” for the first time, Inhofe recommended everyone watch the film, which is set in the midst of Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews during World War II. He then circled back to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose president has questioned the Holocaust.

“Iran denies that it even took place,” said Inhofe indignantly. “You won’t find any country … that is more anti-Israel than Iran. Isn’t it interesting, though, that Iran supports Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense? “

Iran has not, in fact, supported Hagel’s nomination, but reality took a back seat to emotion as the lawmakers sought to block the president’s choice.

They confirmed Hagel by 58 votes to 41, which, according to The New York Times, is the smallest margin for a defense secretary since the position was created in 1947.

This is not going to make his job any easier.

“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective on his job,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told Time magazine.

But as the new defense secretary strives to mend fences, he will be juggling some of the most sensitive issues to face the nation in recent history.

Iran: A tempest in a centrifuge

On Wednesday in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the “P5 +1” group of nations (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) wrapped up two days of talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran on its deeply controversial nuclear program.

Iran insists it has the right to develop a uranium enrichment program for peaceful purposes; the United States and its allies, particularly Israel, are determined that Iran not be allowed to acquire the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

Hagel’s position on Iran came under close scrutiny during his confirmation hearings, when he seemed uncertain of the administration’s position, and, in fact, suggested that he supported a policy of containment. The president has stated explicitly that containment is not an option.

Senate Republicans say they want a strong message sent to Iran that the United States would use force if necessary to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon, and pounced on Hagel’s hesitancy.

Tensions are rising: The United States and its allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran, which has struck back with threats to choke off the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz.

Obama has said it’s “unacceptable” for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and is developing “bunker buster” bombs capable of destroying even the most hardened sites.

This week’s talks produced little in the way of actual results, but the two sides did agree to keep talking, and will meet again in March, this time in Istanbul.

Between now and then, the newly anointed defense secretary will have to huddle with the White House to make sure Washington has a clear and cohesive policy that can be easily communicated to the sparring parties — in this case, the Islamic Republic of Iran and