Battleland

Stat! Bloodied Defense Secretary Incoming!

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Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Jan. 31.

The U.S. Senate confirmed former senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary Tuesday after a long, drawn-out confirmation battle.

Early Tuesday afternoon, he cleared the most critical hurdle when the Senate voted 71-27  to cut off debate on his nomination to serve as the nation’s 24th defense secretary. The vote easily cleared the 60 votes needed.

He won actual confirmation several hours later when the Senate voted to confirm him, 58-41.

Hagel comes to the Pentagon wounded as surely as he was in Vietnam in 1968. He volunteered to go to southeast Asia as an enlisted man, where he earned two Purple Hearts.

Similarly, many of his current wounds are self-inflicted. His confirmation-hearing performance was abysmal, both in content – the prospective defense secretary was confused over U.S. policy regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions? – and in style. He appeared lethargic; some Vietnam veterans wondered if he were suffering from latent PTSD.

“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective on his job,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP’s second-ranking member and minority whip. Republican opposition to Hagel’s nomination delayed Tuesday’s confirmation vote by nearly two weeks; several changed their votes to allow the nomination to proceed.

President Obama is entitled to the defense secretary he wants, absent clearly disqualifying evidence. That doesn’t exist in Hagel’s case, and his roster of bipartisan supporters – ranging from former Army general Colin Powell to former Air Force general Brent Scowcroft — makes that point clear.

“He is an extraordinary individual who has proven with his life his commitment to this nation,” said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, who as majority whip is the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat. “I believe that Chuck Hagel is up to this test.”

But there is a decidedly forlorn aspect to the Hagel saga.

In the U.S. legislature, politics used to end at the water’s edge. Perhaps President Obama erred in nominating somewhat like Hagel. Perhaps Senate Republicans erred in relentlessly beating him about the head with statements he has made.

But the issue of blame here is irrelevant.

The only thing that counts is that the nation will soon have a defense secretary who is opposed by much of the nation’s treaty-making legislative body. Whips aren’t the only vote-counters; the nation’s allies and foes are paying attention, too, and Hagel’s close confirmation margin will factor into their words and actions on military matters, at least early in his tenure.

But there is one silver lining here. The Senate approved John Kerry to serve as secretary of state 94-to-3 last month. Some suggest that means he’s unlikely to rock the swift boat. Hagel’s much narrower confirmation suggests he is less accommodating, and willing to shake things up at the Defense Department.

So as a bloodied Hagel is wheeled into the Pentagon infirmary – metaphorically speaking, of course – military docs will be busy patching him up.

Then it’ll be up to Hagel to prove his critics wrong.

Given the bitterness of his confirmation fight, looming budget cuts, and the nation’s war weariness, he could end up being just what the doctor ordered.

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