Hagel Wrong Choice to Lead Pentagon

January 15, 2013

The bitter tone of gridlock in Washington has left many Americans hoping for a more collaborative environment to face the country’s most pressing challenges. Changes in the president’s Cabinet presented a prime opportunity for coming together. Instead of seeking consensus, President Obama has forced confrontation with the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to be America’s next secretary of Defense.

Unlike outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was approved unanimously by the Senate, Hagel is expected to provoke a divisive confirmation process – at a time when Congress should be focused on urgent budget issues that could dramatically change America’s defense strategy and capabilities.

If not averted, disastrous military cuts are set to go into effect less than two months from now. The impact threatens to jeopardize military readiness and puts more than one million American jobs on the line. Doubts that Congress and the White House can reach an agreement have already prompted the Pentagon to order cutbacks, including a hiring freeze on civilian workers and slashing costs from military base operations.

A better choice for the country’s top defense post would be a leader with mainstream appeal and unequivocal bipartisan support. A contentious confirmation process does nothing to strengthen America’s defense capabilities and global preeminence. With so much at stake in the coming weeks, the president’s controversial pick sends the wrong signal to our allies and adversaries around the world.

To be sure, Hagel is a respected Vietnam veteran who has served our country with honor. But the merits of his military service, although admirable, do not dismiss a record of questionable positions and sentiments reflecting a polarizing worldview, which could have far-reaching implications for the Defense department.

My opposition to this nomination stems in part from Hagel’s flawed vision for America’s role in the world and whether his selection signals a move toward a weaker defense by a second Obama administration. In choosing Hagel, the president seems to suggest that his approach will be to downplay American leadership rather than strengthen it. In the past, Hagel’s decisions and statements have drawn significant concerns from both Democrats and Republicans. One is right to wonder whether Hagel’s views on issues affecting the country’s national security interests would shape his doctrine as Defense secretary. At the very least, his nomination calls into question the national security priorities of the president’s second term.

As The Washington Post noted in an editorial in December, “Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term.” A thorough debate about these positions should be at the forefront of upcoming Senate hearings.

For one, comments Hagel has made cast doubt on the role he would play as an advocate for a robust defense budget. The Pentagon has already endured nearly half a trillion dollars in cuts, which amounts to a nearly 9 percent reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years. Current law calls for additional across-the-board cuts, which can and should be avoided.

Shortsighted reductions could cripple America’s ability to respond to emerging security threats and provide our troops with resources they need. As Panetta and other top defense officials have repeatedly insisted, the looming cuts would be “devastating” to our troops. The next secretary of Defense must answer with leadership.

Similarly worrisome are the policy decisions that Hagel has advocated regarding America’s actions against Iran, which continues to be a dangerous threat in a volatile Middle East. During his time in the Senate, Hagel opposed unilateral sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear program. He voted against designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, ignoring its involvement in the killing of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. His calls for direct negotiations and criticism toward the use of military force misjudge Iran’s belligerent intentions.

This stance is not only a departure from the administration’s strategy but raises fundamental questions about Hagel’s commitment to strengthening America’s relationship with Israel. As a senator, Hagel refused to join efforts supporting Israel and condemning violent groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. His statements about the “Jewish lobby” add to the concern about the sincerity of his support toward one of America’s closest allies.

The new Defense secretary will face real and formidable challenges from his or her first day in office. Whoever is confirmed will oversee 1.4 million active-duty troops, 718,000 civilian personnel, 1.1 million in the National Guard and Reserve, and more than 2 million military retirees. He or she will influence our military’s involvement around the world, the Pentagon’s vital counter-terrorism strategies, and the future of America’s global leadership.

The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to provide “advice and consent” on nominations. A record of extreme views makes Hagel an unwise pick, and the president’s decision points to more rancorous fights to come.