Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hagel as possible SecDef

President Obama is said to be ready to nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel [R-NE] to be the 24th Secretary of Defense. The choice suggests that Obama feels close, personally and policywise, to his former colleague, a valuable attribute. To succeed as SecDef, a person needs a good working relationship with the President -- but also with his NSC colleagues, the senior military, and the Congress. While he may have a friendship with Secretary of State designate Kerry, the two officials would head two quite different institutions that often come into conflict.  Former Senators usually get a pass from their colleagues when named to cabinet positions, but that did not happen in the case of John Tower -- for person flaws -- and may not happen with Hagel. Though a career Republican, Hagel is now viewed as an apostate for turning against the Iraq war and other George W. Bush policies. Perhaps a better comparison is with Bill Cohen, another former Republican Senator named to head the Pentagon by a Democratic president. Hagel served in Vietnam as an enlisted man, thus making him sympathetic to the conditions of ordinary soldiers and likely endearing himself to military personnel. As a former member of the Foreigh Relations Committee, he has some grasp on diplomatic-strategic issues, but not on the nitty-gritty of weapons, force structure, or the military aspects of national security strategy.  He has some business experience but will need to be exceptionally decisive in order to lead the Pentagon. In short, he has reasonable qualifications for a most challenging job.

His first challenge is to be confirmed by the Senate. Already a diverse group of people is complaining about Hagel's prior policy statements on gay rights and Israel. Others will likely object to his nomination because he won't endorse their recommendations for higher defense spending or for particular programs like missile defense. Washington is too polarized right now for Senators to give Hagel quick, bipartisan approval. So we'll see how well he stands up to the criticism.  -- and how well the President defends him.

If confirmed, Hagel will face the always difficult challenge of cutting defense spending further, as part of government-wide austerity. He also will have to develop policy options for and oversee  the implementation of presidential decisions on Afghanistan troop levels, Iran's nuclear potential, and the many simmering problems involving China. I don't expect him to be a radical reformer, but he could be a prudent leader.

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