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Chuck Hagel spent more than a decade in the United States Senate, asking witnesses questions at hearings. Today, he's the one answering questions. Hagel is testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, as it considers his nomination to be secretary of defense. He follows Senator John Kerry, who was confirmed this week to be secretary of state.

Now, outsiders are looking at President Obama's national security team and asking what it says about the administration's approach to war.

Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have a prominent biographical detail in common: service in Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: As a veteran of war, I will always carry the consequences of our decisions in my mind.

SHAPIRO: That was Kerry at the start of his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state.

This was President Obama introducing Hagel to be defense secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To this day, Chuck bears the scars and the shrapnel from battles he fought in our name.

SHAPIRO: The White House emphasizes that both Kerry and Hagel understand the full cost of war, in money and in lives. President Obama believes that makes them the right men for this moment after a decade of big, expensive, bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tommy Vietor is a White House spokesman.

TOMMY VIETOR: I don't think we can necessarily say without a doubt that there will never be a large war again. However, certainly, we've moved conceptually towards a more targeted, surgical approach that focuses on al-Qaida. So you don't have this 100,000-troop footprint in Iraq to deal with a far smaller group of individuals that are actually targeting the United States.

SHAPIRO: The targeted, surgical approach that Vietor describes relies less on the military and more on the CIA, which brings up Obama's third major national security nomination: CIA director-in-waiting John Brennan, who's been a longtime advisor to President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN BRENNAN: Al-Qaida seeks to bleed us financially by drawing us into long, costly wars that also inflame anti-American sentiment.

SHAPIRO: This was from a speech Brennan gave two years ago here in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BRENNAN: Our best offense won't always be deploying large armies abroad, but rather, delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.

SHAPIRO: There's that phrase again: targeted, surgical. I asked Vietor at the White House: Is targeted, surgical approach a euphemism for drones and a kill list?

VIETOR: The way we think about this for a president is, he doesn't have a choice about whether to do counterterrorism operations or not. There are threats to the United States, and his obligation is to protect the American people. He has a choice about how he conducts these counterterrorism operations.

SHAPIRO: So these three nominations - Kerry, Hagel and Brennan - represent a shift in the way the U.S. wages war. It's a shift from big to small, from the Pentagon to the CIA. And legal experts say it's also a shift from clear public rules to murky, secret ones.

The rules for invading a country are well-established. They've been developed over hundreds of years. But when the U.S. decides to go after a small group of suspected terrorists, spread out in lots of different countries, Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution says it's a whole new ballgame.

BEN WITTES: That is a much, much more complicated and much less-charted area of international law, of U.S. domestic law, in some ways. It's an area that is really important to the future as represented by these nominations, I think.

SHAPIRO: It's controversial, too, and President Obama has had some pushback - though more overseas than at home. Regardless, it's now part of his legacy, says Karen Greenberg. She runs the National Security Program at Fordham Law School.

KAREN GREENBERG: Remember, President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize by saying war is necessary. He's somebody who understands, to his mind, what he sees as the need of war to create peace.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Bob Blackwill, who held national security positions in the Bush administration, thinks this is a step that any president would have taken.

BOB BLACKWILL: We've been at war for the longest period in American history. We're, as a country, exhausted by these long wars we've been fighting. And I think that's the broad view of the American people now.

SHAPIRO: He says any president is a politician, answerable to the will of the American people. And right now, the American people want restraint.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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