The ritual theater and jostling over Cabinet nominees that has been playing out since U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election in November took on a particularly harsh tone with the nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary.
It’s not new for members to raise objections to a nominee in order to extort future concessions, but the sophisticated and well-orchestrated smear campaign against Hagel, including TV and newspaper ads opposing him, has made this once private process even uglier in public.
Hagel should and will survive to succeed Leon Panetta as defense secretary. He’s smart, well-versed in national security issues, knows the players at home and abroad, can be blunt or smooth and diplomatic, as necessary, and above all, is seen as a good and focused leader.
Those are a particularly strong set of characteristics to take to the Pentagon at a time when it faces its deepest defense cuts in two decades.
His opponents, however, say he’s weak on Iran because he believes military action should be a last resort in stopping Tehran’s nuclear program; he’s anti-Israel because he disagrees with the current Israeli government in backing a two-state peace deal; and that he won’t advocate for defense because he believes defense spending is bloated. The last among these neoconservative talking points is that he’s an isolationist who wants America to retreat from the world stage.
Hagel’s reluctance to use force isn’t weakness, but wisdom. As someone who bears the scars and carries to this day shrapnel from his service in Vietnam, he wants to be absolutely certain there’s a need for war before committing American troops. That stance, in the wake of poorly planned wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be welcome.
Next, while Israel is a special ally, it can’t dictate policies that force Washington to alienate others in the region. Indeed, Washington does Israel a disservice by blindly backing short-sighted policies that, over the long term, put the Jewish state at greater risk.
As for spending, defense cuts are coming, with or without Hagel in the Pentagon. The truth is, DoD is bloated, and its waste saps resources from more important priorities. Hagel knows cuts and reforms are vital to field a leaner yet still capable force.
The notion that Hagel is an isolationist is another red herring, even more absurd, given he’s chairman of the Atlantic Council, an organization dedicated to harnessing American-European cooperation on common security goals.
That Hagel would rather act multilaterally than unilaterally in addressing complex global problems is no vice. As a strong believer in smart power and drawing allies together to tackle major security problems, Hagel has a healthy aversion to the perils of Washington trying to act alone.
Finally, Hagel is uniquely suited to address the rising cost of service members and veterans, costs that pose a major threat to the Defense Department. As the first former enlisted man to hold the job, he would carry credibility on that argument that few could match.
Pairing Hagel with a strong deputy such as current Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter, notes one Republican observer, could form a strong team to engineer the coming drawdown.
The Senate is duty-bound to ensure that each of the administration’s senior political nominees is worthy of holding high office, especially when it comes to national security.
To that end, senators should focus their questioning on what Hagel would do once in office, and he should provide answers that outline, as best he can, his approach to this important job at a critical time.
With so much work bearing down on the Pentagon, the sooner Hagel is confirmed and gets on the job, the better.