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Jon Huntsman Defends Chuck Hagel

"We hear a lot on Israel... I don't hear enough on Pentagon reform issues," he tells BuzzFeed.

Posted on January 14, 2013, at 3:52 p.m. ET

Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed

Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed

Former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman defended Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel during an interview at the BuzzFeed office in New York on Monday, calling Hagel "his own person" and saying that there has been too strong a focus on Israel at the expense of other issues in the discussion surrounding his nomination.

"I hear a lot on Israel," Huntsman said. "Which is an important point. I don't hear enough on Pentagon reform issues, and let's be very frank about this, the years ahead are going to carry enormous challenges for whomever runs the Pentagon in the area of reform. Because we can't keep spending as we are on defense-related issues."

Huntsman identified personnel and healthcare costs as well as rising contracting expenses as some of the biggest challenges facing the Pentagon and said that the Secretary of Defense job would require "somebody who goes against the grain of conventional wisdom."

Huntsman's current position as a moderate Republican who regularly critiques his own party is similar to the role Hagel played during his time in the Senate — which is part of the reason he's facing so much Republican ill will right now.

"I haven't heard anybody talk about Chuck Hagel in terms of what attitude he might bring to Pentagon reform," Huntsman said. "I don't know him well, I've met him a couple times, but my sense is he's his own person, that he's willing to go against conventional wisdom."

"Israel aside, Iran aside, the stuff that secretary is going to have to do is real nuts and bolts reform."

Huntsman described the neo-conservative campaign against Hagel as "all part of the give and take on personnel choices."

He acknowledged a certain shift in the foreign policy world away from Bush-era thinking on foreign intervention towards a more moderate view, represented by the ascendancy of people like Hagel.

"There may be a little bit of this in play in terms of the different factions and different viewpoints, but the world moves on," Huntsman said.

He cited the huge cost in lives and money of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as reason to question, "In the rear view mirror we have to ask, has this all been in the best interest of the United States?"

He discussed Iran, an issue on which he was seen as soft during the Republican primary.

"There's much to be done before you get to the military option, but it should absolutely be on the table," Huntsman said. "There's enough concern about this issue and how it could reorder the region if things don't go well, that Chuck Hagel's being put to the test in terms of his own beliefs here. And that's probably a fair discussion to have before a Senate confirmation. It'll certainly happen during the Senate confirmation."