Second-term nominations are like hiring coaches mid-season — where the team stands may matter more who takes the helm. That is certainly the case in the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for secretary of Defense. When the Senate hearings get under way, questions are much more likely to revolve around the former senator’s plans for the team than his qualifications to lead it.
There are two kinds of mid-season coach picks. One aims to salvage the season, to turn things around. Think Robert Gates replacing Donald Rumsfeld in George W. Bush’s second term. Gates was tasked with salvaging the war effort in Iraq by selling the surge.
But turnarounds don’t seem to be the intent behind any of President Obama’s picks for his new national security team: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) at State, chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan at CIA and Hagel at Defense. The goal seems to be a Cabinet content to play out the season: All have strong records of cheerleading for the president’s defense and foreign policies.
So far, the pre-nomination skirmish over the Pentagon’s second-term makeup has been all about quote-mining from Hagel’s past. Ho-hum. That is not likely to produce more than fodder for talk shows and hoopla for headlines while we all wait for the main event. Obama would not have nominated the man from Nebraska if he did not think the votes were there to confirm him.
And Hagel is well-practiced at how the confirmation game is played. He’s unlikely to suffer a Susan Rice-like meltdown in pre-hearing meetings on the Hill. Odds are he will defend his record well enough at the witness table as well.
Thus, we can expect the confirmation hearings to move fairly quickly from the nominee’s credentials and quotes to the real meat of the matter: the condition of the team and what’s in store for the rest of the administration’s season. And there are plenty of hot issues out there for senators not thrilled with the nominee’s policy views or those of his boss to focus on.
Expect a serious discussion about strategy. Mid-term, Obama pulled a bait and switch on the Congress. First, the Pentagon came out with the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which was supposed to provide a “long-term” assessment of strategy, needs and threats. Then, not two years later, the president called for new “Strategic Guidance” that magically found the world had become a much more safe and manageable place than the QDR had calculated — enough to justify a half-trillion dollars in defense cuts.
Hagel will be pressed to guarantee that the next QDR will be a real scrub of defense needs and not just an exercise in rubber-stamping budget cuts preferred by the Oval Office. But because the administration has adamantly opposed appointing an independent congressional commission to assess the forthcoming QDR, expect some in the Senate hearings to be a little skeptical of any assurances the nominee offers.
The hearings will also feel Hagel out on nuclear strategy and missile defense. While pressing the Senate to ratify the New START arms control agreement with Russia, the president made big promises on nuclear modernization. He didn’t really follow through on any of them. And then, there was that “just wait until after the elections” comment with the former Russian president on the next steps on missile defense.
The reality is our nuclear arsenal is atrophying. Hagel is on record as supporting Obama’s call for “global zero.” An unrealistic plan to eliminate nuclear weapons, “global zero” is actually is more likely to spark a nuclear conflict. So expect a lot questions about the future of the nuclear arsenal and missile defense, with some senators laying down markers and drawing red lines.
Finally, expect to hear the words “hollow force” a lot. A military goes “hollow” when missions essential to protecting U.S. vital interests outpace the readiness and capabilities of the military allotted to do the job. Senators will likely seek assurances that the Pentagon under Hagel would actually deliver on the strong national defense the president is always promising.
If he sees signs that the military is hollowing out — as it did under former Presidents Carter and Clinton — will Hagel give Congress a heads-up? Of course, Hagel will answer, “But don’t worry: President Obama would never let the military to go hollow.”
The questions will be hard. The answers will be easy. What the hearings will really boil down to is this: Which senators will believe Hagel’s promises?
-Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies for The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Hill.