February 25, 2013
The fact Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary has dragged on so long and caused so much teeth-gnashing means it’s probably a good time for President Obama to come up with another candidate.
With a Senate vote on Hagel expected this week, it’s not too late to do so.
Sure, it’s understandable why Obama chose Hagel. As a former senator he can look members of Congress square in the eye as a perceived peer when discussing the tough issues.
Plus, he’s worn the uniform, which may give him some clout with the troops in the trenches; pull with the senior civilians and big brass is another question.
Hagel also served as a Republican, which gives the president political cover when it comes to bipartisanship in his second-term cabinet and on cutting Pentagon spending, which is expected to be an Obama priority.
Besides inexperience running a large, complex organization like the Pentagon, the real concern is Hagel’s command of the pressing issues and his policy views, following a lackluster confirmation hearing a few weeks ago.
One can only imagine how the troops in the field must feel watching Hagel — potentially their next boss — stumble before the Senate Armed Services Committee over important national security questions. It likely didn’t inspire confidence in their prospective leader.
The same is probably true for our friends and allies, who must have been dismayed and discouraged at the televised display. That’s deeply unfortunate — and a position that may be difficult to recover from.
Moreover, secretary of defense isn’t a position suited for on-the-job training. With an international landscape chock-full of hot spots and flash points, you need to hit the ground running.
It’s not as if a fast-unfolding Benghazi-like crisis is going to wait while the Pentagon chief reads a background memo or briefing book.
Unfortunately, the policy outlook isn’t any better.
Hagel has long been considered soft on Iran, so one has to wonder whether his confusion about the Obama administration’s policy toward Tehran was an honest mistake or whether he actually prefers “containment” over prevention of a nuclear Iran? (He had to amend his remarks during his confirmation hearing.)
It’s also hard to fathom Hagel’s support for total nuclear disarmament, especially in light of North Korea’s recent nuclear blast. It seems counterintuitive to work toward reducing our nuclear arsenal, while our foes are building theirs.
Unless, of course, you’re looking for trouble.
And what kind of steward would Hagel be of our defense establishment? He has talked about cutting Pentagon spending, but at the same time he hasn’t laid out a detailed blueprint.
That would seem to be important in light of emerging security challenges such as China. The old do-it-yourself adage applies: “Measure twice; cut once.” It’s not clear Hagel has even measured once yet.
In the end, the delay and debate over Hagel’s confirmation may have served us all well — as it gives the president an opportunity to rethink a nominee who has proven to be without question the most disputed defense pick in recent times.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in Boston Herald.