New SecDef’s First Day: All But Mute on Imminent Budget Cuts

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DoD photo / MC 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addresses his (mostly civilian) troops Wednesday morning.

Defense Secretary at Last Chuck Hagel had a predictable first day at the helm of the Pentagon Wednesday following his nearly two-month fight to win confirmation.

Arriving shortly after oh-dark-thirty, he took the oath as defense secretary, and visited the 9/11 Memorial just outside the building, before meeting with Pentagon civilians and military personnel. The civilians are nervously anticipating a 20% pay cut starting Friday and running until October if the sequester-mandated budget cuts take place, as pretty much everyone now bets they will.

He pulled a Phil Donahue in the Pentagon auditorium, abandoning a podium in favor of coming to the floor and talking to some of his more than 2 million new employees. His political background showed: within moments, he had feted the Nebraska soldier who introduced him, praised the soldier’s mother, and ended his chat about his fellow Cornhusker with the prototypical defense-secretary sendoff: “Thank you all for what you are doing and have done, will continue to do for our country.”

Hagel acknowledged his gruntedness, and that fact that he had served in Vietnam with his brother, Tom. “We’ve got the chief of staff of the Army [here]. He makes me shake a little, being an old Army sergeant,” he said of General Ray Odierno. “But the sergeant major of the Army scares the hell out of me,” he said to laughter, referring to Raymond F. Chandler III, the service’s top enlisted man. “I think he does the general too, actually.”

The hours-old defense chief wrapped up his remarks by saying that “I’m very proud to be on your team” and pledging to “deal straight with you. I’ll be honest. I’ll be direct. I’ll expect the same from you. I’ll never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do. I will never ask anybody to do more than I wouldn’t do. That’s the story of your lives. I wouldn’t be worthy if that was not the case.”

Perhaps surprisingly, only two days before sequestration hits, Hagel mentioned the looming budget cuts only in passing:

If there’s one thing American has stood for more than any one thing, is that we are a force for good. We make mistakes, we’ve made mistakes, we’ll continue to make mistakes. But we are a force for good. And we should never, ever forget that. And we should always keep that out in front as much as any one thing that drives us every day, as difficult as our jobs are. Budget, sequestration, I don’t need to dwell on all the good news there; that’s a reality. We need to figure this out. You are doing that. You have been doing that. We need to deal with this reality.

In contrast, at his first Pentagon press briefing in August 2011, then-new defense secretary Leon Panetta dedicated much of his opening remarks to the prospect of the sequester, including this passage:

We face a broad and growing range of security threats and challenges that our military must be prepared to confront, from terrorist networks to rogue nations that are making efforts to obtain a nuclear capability, to dealing with rising powers that always look at us to determine whether or not we will, in fact, maintain a strong defense here and throughout the world.

It is that multitude of security challenges that makes me particularly concerned about the sequester mechanism that was contained in the debt-ceiling agreement.

This mechanism — this kind of doomsday mechanism that was built into the agreement is designed so that it would only take effect if Congress fails to enact further measures to reduce the deficit. But if it happened — and God willing, that would not be the case, but if it did happen, it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board, defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation.

It is an outcome that would be completely unacceptable to me as secretary of defense…

…which may help explain why he ceased being defense secretary less than 48 hours before the ax is slated to fall.

It’s plain that President Obama tapped Hagel to cool down some of the Pentagon rhetoric about the cuts now looming.

It’s just too bad that the Senate Armed Services Committee, pre-occupied with what Hagel had said in the past – about Israel, about Iran, about nuclear weapons – asked so few questions about what he plans to do now.