Hagel: A Different Kind of Defense Secretary

Hagel’s nomination and inevitable appointment as Secretary of Defense is stirring controversy in the Senate — as it should

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Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for Defense Secretary

Former Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination and inevitable appointment as Secretary of Defense is stirring controversy in the Senate.

It should.

Hagel’s appointment signals the end of 20 years of interventions that began with Somalia and ended with Iraq and, very soon, Afghanistan.

Hagel’s appointment also makes certain that defense spending will be significantly reduced to pre-2000 levels or lower. How that spending and the massive bureaucratic structure it supports will be reduced is unknown, but the proverbial handwriting is on the wall.

In this sense, Hagel’s appointment trumps the ideology of permanent conflict, a belief system promoted by neocons inside the Beltway that allows politicians and generals to define failure as success while spending money without any enduring strategic framework relating U.S. military power to attainable strategic goals.

To hear Hagel’s critics in the Senate, Hagel’s offense is the result of his determination to see the world as it is, not as the capital’s ideologues would like Americans to see it.

Hagel’s first sin was to reject the much celebrated 2007 surge in Iraq as a serious strategic blunder. His skepticism was no doubt informed by his personal experience with open-ended missions to install democracy at gunpoint in a backward society called Vietnam.

As it turned out, Hagel was right. It seems that his real sin was his determination to be guided by Winston Churchill’s admonition that “an exaggerated code of honor leading to the performance of utterly vain and unreasonable deeds should not be defended however fine it might look.”

Other than killing more than a thousand Americans in uniform, along with seriously wounding thousands more, the crowning achievement of the surge was the permanent installation of Iranian national power and influence in Baghdad in the form of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, Tehran’s preferred regime. Iraq’s current government is nothing more than a shabby democratic facade, one that barely conceals an Iranian-backed Shi’ite Arab dictatorship in Baghdad.

Hagel’s second sin appears to be his unwillingness to wage war on behalf of the Israeli government against Iran, a state that spends less on defense than Greece. Not to worry, Hagel is in good company.

Though as pro-British as his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt had no intention of declaring war on behalf of another state, least of all the faltering British Empire. More important, he would not make Woodrow Wilson’s mistake and commit millions of Americans to an ideological crusade that promised no tangible strategic benefit to the American people.

Between 1939 and 1942, FDR resisted Churchill’s considerable powers of persuasion, providing only what assistance Britain needed to survive and nothing more. When Adolf Hitler turned on the Soviet Union, his closest ally until June 1941, FDR knew the Nazis had overextended themselves. He could afford to build up American strength while the Nazis and communists exhausted themselves in a war of self-destruction.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler foolishly declared war on the U.S. as a party to his treaty of alliance with Japan, FDR acted. Again, his response was calculated and, with the benefit of hindsight, correct. Moving prematurely to challenge the German military machine at the height of its powers would have meant 10 times the number of American dead we lost, if not outright defeat.

Hagel’s caution regarding the use of force against Iran is equally justified. Negotiating with an Iranian leadership that has one foot in the seminary and the other in the bazaar will not be easy, but it is more likely to serve American strategic interests than brute force.

Hagel’s third sin is reportedly his lack of personal experience inside the Defense Department’s bureaucracy. As one Washingtonian put it, “The man running the Pentagon is in charge of one of the biggest and most complex bureaucracies in the world, and there is nothing in Senator Hagel’s background that says he can do the job well.” Really?

Presumably, this inside-the-Beltway expert regards the last 20 years of wasteful and expensive procurement programs — from ship building to body armor, with an endless succession of ineffective military operations — as evidence of brilliant stewardship in the office of Secretary of Defense of American blood and treasure.

The truth is, federal auditors, poring over the Defense Department’s conflicting financial statements, missing data and accounting discrepancies, have thus far been unable to account for hundreds of billions of dollars, even as Congress continues to fund the defense establishment. The loss or waste of billions of defense dollars each year is a condition the Government Accountability Office says has afflicted the Pentagon for decades. If Hagel is not part of this disastrous problem, maybe he can be part of the solution.

Finally, FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were men whose judicious application of American blood and treasure flowed from an appreciation of the country’s political, economic and military limitations as well as its potential.

All three men were imperfect by today’s lofty public standards. They reached the White House in different ways and with different political parties, but all were able to distinguish reality from fiction in the conduct of war and the preservation of peace.

Hagel is a man very much in the mold of these men, being unpretentious and parsimonious with American blood and treasure. As a result, he has the moral courage to make choices that serve the national interest and mission accomplishment. Even if that means — as he demonstrated under fire in Vietnam — taking action that jeopardizes his own well-being.


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