Obama Gun Control Executive Order: Is Defense Pick Chuck Hagel a Factor?


In the three years President Barack Obama represented Illinois in the Senate, he became aware of maverick Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). They served together on the Foreign Relations committee. It became clear to both men that they shared an antipathy for the war as well as for then-President Bush. In 2008, as Obama ran for the presidency, Hagel joined him on a tour of Iraq and Afghanistan. Once Obama was elected, Hagel, having retired from the Senate after two terms, served on the president's Intelligence Advisory and Defense Policy Boards.  

In January, President Obama nominated Hagel to be the country's next Secretary of Defense, as Leon Panetta wraps up his own distinguished career in a variety of public service offices. During Panetta's days in the Obama administration, he has taken some positions that indicate an independent awareness of what is best for the nation. 

Would Hagel be as strong? Is Hagel a person who would take contrarian stands if he felt his boss were wrong? What conflict might arise between the president and this prospective Defense secretary, and how might a clash of wills between them play out? 

To consider this, recall what the office of Secretary of Defense addresses. Historically, the scope of the Secretary of Defense covered policy, planning, procurement, and performance for national defense from foreign threats. Internal security, when deemed a national issue, is outside the DOD mission and is maintained and enforced by the "alphabet agencies," such as the FBI, BATF, DEA, and TSA. Of course, most internal security matters are local and dealt with by state and community police forces. 

But think about the political climate today. We still have the president who campaigned with intent for "fundamentally transforming the United States of America." In December, when the nation was reeling from the tragedy in Sandy Hook, leftists, with the support of the easy-answer crowd, hijacked the crisis in a concerted effort to further limit gun ownership.  How far will they go? Some propose national registration of all guns plus a ban on all semi-automatic weapons and magazines capable of holding more than five cartridges. Realize that banning may not depend on passing a law. In fact, the administration is now suggesting a ban may be imposed by presidential decree. Of course, a decree alone does not remove guns from citizens. How would gun removal be achieved?

Most likely, Americans would be directed — in the spirit of transforming America— to comply voluntarily. Certainly, many would not acquiesce. Since simple possession of any type of banned gun would be a crime, enforcement would be required. With 115,000,000 households to check across America, that would demand a lot of resources, even if some favored groups were exempted.

Clearly the task would be too great for the field personnel of the FBI and BATF. Despite the militarization of local police forces, they still might well be considered unreliable, and many would actively resist. Since American troops will be standing down from Afghanistan in the coming months, they would be an available resource. Many of them are trained for urban, house-to-house actions, and they are practiced in carrying out orders. Furthermore, these troops would be deployed into counties and towns where they had no local affinities. Thus using these resources of the Department of Defense may appear to be the best strategy for "pacifying" the country. But would Chuck Hagel, as Secretary of Defense, cooperate?

In the anticipation of such a crisis, we may form some expectations on what Hagel would do, by reviewing his own life experiences.

Born in a small Nebraska town on the cutting edge of the Boomer Generation, Hagel earned an associate degree in radio broadcasting before entering the Army in 1967. During his two-year stint in the 9th Infantry, Hagel made buck sergeant and thus led a squad of ten riflemen. Hagel and his brother Tom fought together in Vietnam, where Chuck earned two Purple Hearts for life-threatening wounds received from exploding mines. 

When he returned to Nebraska, Hagel worked on-air in radio as he completed his bachelor's degree at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Following graduation, he joined the staff of a Republican congressman and six years later became a lobbyist for Firestone. Having assisted in the Reagan campaign, Hagel briefly served as a deputy administrator in the Veterans Administration – until resigning after one year over the dismissiveness of Agent Orange by the department's chief administrator (who himself would be forced out within a few months). 

Hagel remained in Virginia and parlayed his knowledge of communications and government by co-founding Vanguard Cellular and by serving on the executive boards of various public service organizations. He moved back to Omaha in 1992 and became president of a local investment-banking firm. Nebraskans remembered Hagel from his radio days and were impressed with his military, political, civic, and business accomplishments – when Vanguard was sold in 1998, Hagel made millions. Thus when he ran for an open Senate seat in 1996, it was an easy victory. 

During his 12 years in the Senate, Hagel remained what the Brits would call a backbencher. He built a moderately conservative voting record while taking enough positions at odds with fellow Republicans to garner a reputation as a maverick. Although some consider Hagel to be somewhat libertarian (having voted for the Bush tax cuts and against McCain-Feingold, No Child Left Behind, and Medicare Part D), he has also favored some decidedly big-government initiatives, like the so-called Patriot Act.

Hagel's credentials as a maverick were established primarily on issues in which his military experiences would have influenced his perspective. Hagel had initially supported both the wars in Vietnam and in Iraq. His combat experiences resolved him to choose war only if other options failed and then only if an expectation of success was reasonable. Revelations of Lyndon Johnson's perfidy shocked Hagel and influenced his outlook on war management.  When the fighting in Iraq appeared to be inconclusive and misguided, Hagel dropped his support.

Today, Hagel is neither a pacifist nor a neo-con. He has expressed no concerns publicly about Obama's drone-launched killings of Americans on foreign soil. But would Hagel order assaults on Americans inside the United States? 

A case can be made for either position:  

Yes, he would. Hagel has stated he would do whatever is needed to stop the horrors of war; if he becomes convinced gun violence is a war within America, he might consider assaults on Americans justified to end the violence. Hagel has endorsed the Patriot Act. While he began in small-town America among common folk, Hagel's life is now among the rich and privileged. And Hagel is only human: having been anointed by the President of the United States, he's apt to be swayed by the president's persuasions.

No, he would not. Hagel knows first-hand what violence is, and he would not inflict it on innocent Americans for ideological reasons. He opposed the neo-cons on nation building in the Middle East; he would oppose progressives' radical efforts to transform America. Even though Hagel lives among the rich and privileged now, he remains essentially a man of Middle America. While he accepts the Patriot Act as necessary for thwarting foreign terrorists, Hagel would oppose treating American gun owners as terrorists. And Hagel is the eternal maverick: just as he bucked the Republican establishment on principle, he will not hesitate to respond similarly to the Democrat establishment.

Which answer is correct?  Hopefully, we will never need to know.