Chuck Hagel is No Extremist: He Is the Perfect Fit For the Pentagon


President Obama’s nomination for secretary of defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel, is causing consternation in the halls of Congress. Conservatives denounce his views on Israel and Iran, and liberals his former position on gay rights. Other doubt his ability to handle such a high level position. While he took tough positions, he was hardly a leader in the Senate. Compared to other former defense secretaries, his résumé is sparse. Leon Panetta and Robert Gates had extensive experience in the Office of Budget and Management and the intelligence community. Donald Rumsfeld was a top executive in three corporations, as were many others. Hagel helped found a cellular company, led a investment banking firm, and was a deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, but that experience hardly compares.

Despite all these obstacles, President Obama is going to get his way. Hagel’s national security views jibe with the public’s views. He is knowledgeable about national security affairs, and will provide the political cover politicians need to make defense spending cuts. Politically, he is tough to beat, and he is precisely what politicians need to set the country straight. 

Only neo-conservatives are myopic enough to think that Hagel’s views are outside of the mainstream; in truth, they are perfectly representative of it. He doesn’t want to invade Iran, especially unilaterally? Seventy percent of all Americans agree. He thinks that the U.S. needs to take a middle path between Israel and Palestine? Join the crowd. Cut defense? Three out of 4 Americans agree. They would gladly sacrifice the Pentagon to preserve Medicare and Social Security.  

Republicans can oppose Hagel’s nomination, but many know that this will simply damage public perception of the GOP’s ability to handle foreign affairs further, and they’ll need every advantage come 2014.

Hagel has the right qualifications for the job. He may not have been a leader in the Senate, but in that institution, seniority has always mattered more than merit in determining “leadership.” He may not have much experience as a private sector executive, but that hardly predicts excellence in government. After all, Donald Rumsfeld helped lead three companies and was the worst Secretary of Defense in decades.   

Hagel has something more important: deep knowledge of foreign and military affairs and the right values to use in approaching the issues.

Besides serving heroically in Vietnam, he resigned from his job as deputy administrator in the VA after his boss called veterans greedy for seeking government relief for being exposed to Agent Orange, calling it not much worse than “teenage acne.” He served on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, where he sponsored a number of bills relating to weapons of mass destruction and veterans welfare and came to oppose both the Iraq War and capping foreign aid spending. He is a professor at Georgetown University’s international affairs department, the chairman of the Atlantic Council, and a co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board. He knows the issues affecting the country and is sure enough of his values to resist bureaucratic resistance to budget cuts and avoid being captured by special interests. Anyone thinking he is going to wilt while testifying before the Senate, or shy from challenging some general in the Pentagon, is in for a rude surprise.             

Moreover, just about every politician knows, whether they’ll admit to it or not, that defense spending is a quarter of our national budget, the one quarter swollen with slack resources lost all too often to waste and fraud. However, the defense budget is fiercely guarded by the defense industry and neoconservative intellectuals, and many politicians are too scared to lead on the issue. President Obama’s last secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, didn’t help matters by calling cuts “catastrophic,” and repeating several times these cuts would “hit every state.” Few are willing to face down such an avalanche of pressure.

However, Hagel believes that we can and should cut the defense budget. As a former politician he will be able to communicate to the nation about this need. He knows how to build political coalitions; he never would have been elected otherwise. By providing our representatives with political cover, he will be able to help them do the right thing— the hard thing — and they will vote for him even as they complain about it all the way back to their districts. 

You’d better get used to Chuck Hagel. He has the political winds at his back, and he is going to steer the Pentagon in a different direction.