Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, whom President Barack Obama is reportedly considering for defense secretary, is a Republican who would offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team. He would not, however, move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees. On the contrary: Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.
The current secretary, Leon Panetta, has said the defense “sequester” cuts that Congress mandated to take effect Jan. 1 would have dire consequences for U.S. security. Hagel took a different position when asked about Panetta’s comment during a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times.
“The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,” he responded. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”
While both Republicans and Democrats accept that further cuts in defense may be inevitable, few have suggested that a reduction on the scale of the sequester is responsible. In congressional testimony delivered around the same time as Hagel’s interview, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the sequester would lead to “a severe and irreversible impact on the Navy’s future,” “a Marine Corps that’s below the end strength to support even one major contingency,” and “an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk” for the Army.
Hagel was similarly isolated in his views about Iran during his time in the Senate. He repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior. The Obama administration offered diplomacy but has turned to tough sanctions as the only way to compel Iran to negotiate seriously.
Obama has said that his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that containment is not an option. Hagel has taken a different view, writing in a 2008 book that “the genie of nuclear weapons is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.” The former senator from Nebraska signed on to an Op-Ed in The Post this September that endorsed “keeping all options on the table” for stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.
We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)
What’s certain is that Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.
Hagel is an honorable man who served the country with distinction as a soldier in Vietnam and who was respected by his fellow senators. But Obama could make a better choice for defense secretary.
The Washington Post (Dec. 19)