Chuck Hagel is now the nation’s secretary of defense. Although, in looking at the many challenges ahead, it’s something of a wonder that anyone would want the job.
The former Nebraska U.S. senator, who was confirmed on a 58-41 Senate vote Tuesday, will need to be more than just a defender of the nation’s security. He will need to be a salesman in working with Congress to iron out thorny spending issues and a communicator who conveys a clear and direct message about the administration’s national defense policy and decisions.
At a time of serious budget constraints, these tasks will be continuing challenges for the Defense Department’s new civilian leader. News coverage by World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton summed up Hagel’s role:
“It will be up to Hagel to make the case. ... He’ll be trying to persuade Congress to give him more flexibility to deal with the sequester’s bite. That will mean delivering speeches, meeting privately with lawmakers and testifying before the relevant committees.”
Given the magnitude of the federal government’s budget woes, the American people will accept the need for trimming defense spending — if the Obama administration, with Hagel as its point person, explains that the budget cutbacks rest on a foundation of responsible planning and priority-setting.
If sequestration does occur, defense spending would shrink by around $42.5 billion over the next seven months. That’s the first installment on about $500 billion in defense spending sequestration approved for the next 10 years. And that would come on top of the separate $487 billion in 10-year reduction already being implemented under Hagel’s immediate predecessor, Leon Panetta.
The Pentagon’s budget challenges involve not only weapons systems and military bases but also personnel costs, above all military health care, where costs are increasing annually at 10 percent, compared with 6 percent in the nation overall.
As secretary of defense, Hagel will of course be a key leader in deciding how to address other major security questions:
>> U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan. But even with the withdrawal, our country may well supply military trainers and might even retain military facilities in the country. Not quite a light at the end of the tunnel.
>> The fight against terrorism has evolved considerably since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and seems likely to continue to do so. For example, our military’s fight against al-Qaida now includes ongoing operations in parts of Africa as well as Yemen. Part of the policy debate will include the appropriate use of drones to attack terrorist suspects, including U.S. citizens.
>> The United States needs to keep up the pressure on Iran not to convert its nuclear programs to military use. If Iran does take that dangerous step, Hagel would be part of the administration’s all-important discussions on a key question: Would U.S. military action then become the appropriate response?
>> North Korea’s reckless regime continues to use missile tests and other military provocations to keep Asia’s security situation roiling. North Korea is a nuclear-armed country with an extraordinary array of weaponry aimed at South Korea. The United States needs to maintain strong alliances with South Korea and Japan and rely on China as a go-between with North Korea.
>> At the same time, the United States rightly is strengthening its military presence in East Asia as part of a strategic “pivot” toward that region, to provide a balance against China. The defense budget limitations will require hard choices on deployment of U.S. military assets. The United States and China, meanwhile, will likely continue in their relationship in part as partners, in part as competitors.
>> Recent news coverage of China’s ambitious cyberattack on U.S. computer networks highlights the growing importance of security concerns relating to computer systems.
>> U.S.-Russia negotiations will look at further reductions in the two countries’ strategic nuclear arms. A prudent decrease is possible, if properly structured and negotiated (an important “if”).
>> Syria is in the midst of a horrendous civil war that already has cost more than 60,000 lives and could spill over borders in an already sensitive region of the world.
>> Hagel also faces the bureaucratic challenge of asserting his opinion successfully as the administration’s multiple voices on foreign policy (the Defense Department, the State Department, CIA and the president’s national security staff) compete to prevail with the president.
After careers in business, the nonprofit sector (the World USO) and government, Chuck Hagel has demonstrated the ability to handle these responsibilities as our country’s new defense chief. He will need to draw fully on those capabilities as he begins scrutinizing programs, assessing budget options and working the phones to negotiate with Capitol Hill lawmakers.
It all adds up to one tough job.