President Barack Obama is considering an experienced and practical-minded Nebraskan, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, as the country’s next secretary of defense. Hagel should be confirmed by the Senate if nominated.
From his service in the Senate and with various foreign policy organizations, he has decades of experience in studying security issues and working with foreign leaders. He understands the political and bureaucratic ways of Washington. He is respected on Capitol Hill and has a wide range of contacts abroad.
Hagel would bring another perspective to the job as well: If he were confirmed, the top civilian overseeing our nation’s defense establishment would be a decorated former enlisted soldier with combat experience in Vietnam.
In his 2008 book, “America: Our Next Chapter,” Hagel wrote of the need for prudence when committing American troops to overseas hostilities. The title of that chapter: “Who speaks up for the rifleman?”
While word of his possible appointment has brought out political critics, Hagel throughout his public career has taken a balanced view on most defense and foreign policy issues. He has emphasized the need for an approach that acknowledges the complexities of what he calls a “very combustible, complicated world” — one where power is becoming more diffused among nations and where the United States needs to be adaptable in exerting its influence. At the same time, our country cannot back away as a leader on the global stage.
Hagel has a record as a conservative, a thoughtful and level-headed one. His differences with President George W. Bush’s administration over policies in Iraq were grounded in sincere and sober considerations.
It was that departure with his party’s president that led to sharp criticism from some of his fellow Republicans. But Hagel’s broader record as a senator was conservative. His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union was 84 percent, and he received A’s and B’s from the National Taxpayers Union. Similarly, Hagel was criticized and accused of ulterior motives in endorsing Democrat Bob Kerrey’s bid for the U.S. Senate this year. It’s important to remember that the two Vietnam War veterans long ago developed a strong friendship.
Hagel has a proven record as a rigorous, independent thinker. He wasn’t a yes man for President Bush, and there is no indication that he would fail to assert his own views in the Obama administration.
For Omaha and Nebraska, Hagel’s selection also would mean that the man at the top of the Pentagon would know well the critical importance of Offutt Air Force Base’s role in our national defense policy.
If nominated, Hagel can expect to face questions about his commitment to Israel, his attitudes on Iran and the Palestinians, and his 2008 comment on the influence of what he referred to as the “Jewish lobby.” All of that has raised concerns among some, particularly given what the New York Times describes as President Obama’s already “fractious relationship” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Before getting the post, Hagel certainly needs to make clear his position toward America’s loyal and longtime friend, Israel.
As defense secretary, Hagel would face two central challenges. The first is managerial: The next defense secretary will need to steer the Pentagon toward fiscal restraint. That includes setting priorities, seeking efficiencies, standing up to political heat and refereeing competing interests of the various branches of service.
Defense spending, Hagel wrote in 2008, needs to be anchored in sound strategic priorities. He warned against parochial demands from members of Congress. Pork-laden defense spending, he wrote, “cheats real defense requirements.”
The second major challenge may well involve Iran and North Korea. Can economic sanctions and diplomacy succeed in restricting Iran’s nuclear program to non-military use? And what about North Korea, denounced internationally after this month’s successful launching of a three-stage rocket capable of delivering a payload long distances?
These are matters that must be weighed carefully, mindful of the dangers that Hagel prudently discussed in his book: “Once you set war in motion, its consequences are often the ones least intended and they are always uncontrollable.”
In his book Hagel also offered this observation: “The security of our nation is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it is an American issue.”
He’s right. Which is why Americans, regardless of party or philosophy, should support practical military policy that embraces fiscal responsibility while meeting our enduring security needs.
Chuck Hagel would bring strong qualifications to this key national security post.