"I don't see the United States Senate rejecting Chuck Hagel. Under any circumstance that we can foresee at this point," he said. When the chips are really down, Cleland says it's virtually impossible to imagine his Senate vote failing.
"Look Chuck Hagel in the eye and vote up or down. Against a combat-wounded veteran, against a former member of the United States Senate, against a foreign relations committee member, against a sitting member of the military intelligence advisory committee to the Department of Defense," he said. "Look him in the eye and vote against him for Secretary of Defense. Are you kidding me?"
In a long interview, Cleland -- who was severely wounded in the Vietnam War, leaving him in a wheelchair -- praised Hagel as well as Obama's pick to lead the State Department, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Hagel and Kerry also served in Vietnam. Cleland said having two combat vets at the top of the nation's foreign policy will help set a new course after more than a decade of war following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Look at John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, two wounded combat veterans of the Vietnam War. They've got five purple hearts between them. That's the kind of people we want withdrawing from Afghanistan and ending this insane war and occupation and focusing the country on using the American military to stay out war, but if we get in war to win war and win it quickly," he said.
Cleland said the pair will bring harmony to the civilian and military sides of American foreign policy.
"I see them as the perfect dynamic duo -- Batman and Robin, Salt and Pepper, Tom and Jerry. Whatever you want to call it, instead of State and DoD fighting each other all the time as is historically the case, I see them hand-in-glove together," he said. The two "share a common background," he added. "They have both been shot at and hit."
Hagel's potential nomination has resulted in outcry from both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives worry about his commitment to Israel and unwillingness to go to war with Iran. The left has criticized Hagel for past statements they say are homophobic. Hagel apologized for the comments, earning him praise from the Human Rights Campaign as well as President Obama.
Cleland dismissed the controversy over Hagel's remarks.
"You can't take one comment by somebody that has been in American politics for decades and hold it against him. You have to measure their whole outlook," he said. "My understanding is Chuck has met with [the LGBT] community, that he's met with the Jewish community and whether or not they're satisfied with his stances, there's no question in my mind that he is fully capable of embracing the basic rule that all Americans get a chance to serve if they want to."
As for conservative critics of Hagel, Cleland said "nothing about all this process has been fair" but "if you want to play fair, you maybe go to a third grade soccer game ... This is the NFL," he said.
Cleland demurred when asked about criticism on Hagel from fellow Vietnam vet Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has been very supportive of Hagel in the past, but said last month that calling Hagel a Republican "is a hard one to swallow."
"John McCain is my brother. I would be honored to be in a foxhole with any of these guys," he said referring to McCain, Kerry and Hagel.
As he spoke about the possibility of two decorated Vietnam combat vets taking top jobs in the nation's foreign policy establishment, Cleland was audibly excited.
"He and I bled and almost died on the same battlefields in Vietnam. We served together in the United States Senate and we actually got some legislation passed together. I respect him so much," Cleland said.
Hagel is "somebody who knows what war's about," he added.
"You need someone at the top who understands what's going on at the bottom," Cleland said. "And that is young men are getting shot at and killed at wounded. And he's been there, done that, got the holes in his T-shirt."