Viewers of Thursday’s confirmation hearing of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel can be forgiven for thinking they were watching a years-old C-SPAN rerun. The importance of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles dominated initial questioning. Then the war in Iraq was debated. In the end, the issue that most concerned senators from both parties was Hagel’s loyalty to Israel.
During an eight-hour hearing, the difficult decisions that the U.S. military now faces received scant attention. Vast budget cuts loom. Suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder rates are appallingly high. Diverse security threats ranging from Iran to cyber-attacks to al Qaeda in North Africa must be countered.
Overall, a more nimble, modern and smaller American military is needed, but you heard little of that in Thursday’s marathon hearing.
The senators would have benefited from a conversation with a retired American Green Beret whom I interviewed earlier this week. After serving in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, he has a unique view on the strengths – and limits – of U.S. military power. His advice was simple. Long-term training of foreign military forces is more effective and less costly than deploying large numbers of American ground forces.
“It’s the cheapest and the best solution in the long term,” he told me.
Failures, of course, happen. Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, points out that billions of dollars have been spent on a largely failed effort to create a professional police force in Afghanistan. Peter Singer, an expert at the Brookings Institution, correctly argues that the key issue is our relationship with foreign governments, not how much military training we provide.