Senate Republicans and some Democrats are concerned that newly minted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel comes into office politically weakened after a bruising confirmation process. They have reason to be concerned. Republicans are the ones who bruised him, mainly, it seems, because they didn’t think he was loyal enough when he served with them in the Senate.
It’s not that opponents didn’t have real issues to pursue in questioning Hagel – his commitment to Israel and ideas about Iran and the Middle East, in general – but much of their harassment of him was about the unrelated issues of the 2012 attack in Benghazi and about their hard feelings about his criticisms of President George W. Bush when Hagel was in the Senate. It was not the Senate’s finest hour.
Thanks to those attacks and an unprecedented split vote – only four Republicans supported him in the Senate’s 58-41 confirmation vote – Hagel is undoubtedly weaker than he would have been had a more responsible group of senators conducted this review. And it’s a bad time to be weakened.
Hagel won’t have even 48 hours in office before the sequester begins gutting the Pentagon. The sequester is the automatic budget cuts that will lop $1.2 trillion from federal spending over the next 10 years, evenly split between military and domestic spending. It is one of the most irresponsible acts Washington has ever perpetrated on the nation’s welfare.
Nevertheless, Hagel must deal with that reality, unless President Obama and Congress can come to some better arrangement. In a time of high deficits and with the war in Afghanistan winding down, reduced Pentagon spending is necessary, and Hagel may be well suited to the task of managing that reduction. It is regrettable that he is facing budget cuts that are the result not of responsible government, but of a cheap political stunt.
Those cuts are just the start of Hagel’s challenges, though. Another is the drawdown in troops from Afghanistan. It is urgent to accomplish this important task in a way that gives that sorrowful country a chance to prevent the Taliban from seizing control again. Much of that will be up to Afghanistan’s government, which has been given more than enough time to fashion a working government and security force. But the United States must retain some role, albeit diminished, as our troops come home.
Hagel must also continue the transformation of the American military from a fighting force designed for wars over governments and territory, such as Vietnam and World War II, into one that projects American force against proponents of ideologies that threaten the nation’s security.
That process is well under way, but is also controversial as the nation struggles to adapt to the ethical and military challenges of the age of drone warfare. Hagel needs to concern himself with the possibility – perhaps the likelihood – that drones will someday be used against this country. And he needs to protect against potentially catastrophic cyber-assaults such as those apparently committed by China against nonmilitary interests here.
It is unfortunate that Hagel must do this from a weakened position. It would have been one thing if his adversaries were motivated only by Hagel’s sometimes inflammatory comments, but that wasn’t the case. The Republicans who opposed him out of retribution or an unwarranted linkage to Benghazi did the nation no favors.