The real reason Obama wants Hagel
You might imagine the president has quite enough trouble on his hands with the looming battle with House Republicans over extending the debt ceiling without opening a second front over the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Although a distinguished former Republican senator, Hagel has already attracted venomous opposition from his old colleagues who think, among many other complaints, he is not sound on Israel and has been too critical of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does the president really need more aggravation? Isn’t it a golden rule of politics not to spend your political capital all at once, as the president did in his first term when he pressed through healthcare reform to the detriment of an effective plan to reshape the wayward financial institutions? Having achieved a partial victory in the fiscal cliff negotiations by raising taxes on the super-rich, does Obama really need to take on the House and Senate at the same time?
The Republican charge list against Hagel is long, starting with the accusation that he is not really a Republican at all. Hagel, who believes “the Republican Party has come loose of its moorings,” might argue with conviction that it is the Republican Party that has deserted him, not the other way around, but he has certainly relished tweaking the noses of his old pals. In short, he thinks they are not up to snuff. “When you ask the question, Has [the Republican approach] worked? I don’t think many people will say it has worked,” he said. “God knows, I would never question the quality of our elected officials. That’s why I’m so popular with many of them.”
Hagel has gone his own way, supporting his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, in last year’s Senate race in Nebraska and declining to endorse his old Republican friend and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain for president in 2008. After first supporting the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, he turned turtle, opposing General David Petraeus’s troop surge and even going so far as to flirt with the notion that George W. Bush deserved to be impeached. Hagel dared embrace the unthinkable, questioning America’s – and the Republican Party’s –unhesitating devotion to Israel, declaring, “Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind. I’m a United States senator; I’m not an Israeli senator.” He has flown in the face of current GOP orthodoxy, favoring an assault rifle ban and backing abortion in certain circumstances, including rape, incest and a threat to the mother’s health. He has dared suggest that Rush Limbaugh’s hate-radio rantings and the imposition of Tea Party litmus tests to GOP candidates have damaged the Republicans’ electability.
But is being an independent, lippy Republican enough to explain why Obama is backing him for the Defense Department post? No, though it doesn’t hurt. When Obama was a lonely anti-Iraq war senator, he was no doubt grateful to discover that an old school Republican with two Vietnam purple hearts agreed with him. But it is not that, either. To understand fully why Hagel is so warmly embraced by the president, you need to hear of the lessons about how the Pentagon works that he learned while serving in Vietnam, a perspective that sets him apart from patriots on either side of the political divide.
In an interview Hagel gave in the summer of 2011, he recalled his experience as a soldier on the front line. “The abuse and the waste and the fraud is astounding,” he recalled. “It always is in war, by the way. I was in Vietnam in 1968. Even as a private, eventually being a sergeant, out on combat every day, even I saw a tremendous amount of that, so I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” Like every Vietnam veteran, he recognizes mission creep when he sees it. “For example, Afghanistan. Where we are today, with $140 billion a year, this last year, 100,000 American troops in there, plus all the civilians and all the contractors, 10 years after we invaded, that wasn’t even close to what the objective and the mission was when we first went in. We’ve lost sight totally of the mission in Afghanistan.”
His solution? “There’s a tremendous amount of bloat in the Pentagon, and that has to be scaled back.” He continued, “I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically in a long, long time. Every agency needs to do that. The Department of Defense … always gets off by saying, Well, this is national security; you can’t touch national defense. Well, no American wants to in any way hurt our capabilities to national defense, but that doesn’t mean an unlimited amount of money and a blank check for anything they want at any time, for any purpose.”
What must have been sweet music to Obama was how Hagel links extravagant defense spending to the current fiscal debate. “The realities are that the mess we’re in in this country, with our debt and our deficits, and our infrastructure and jobless and all the rest, is going to require everybody to take a look, even the Defense Department, and make a pretty hard re-evaluation and review,” he said. There could not be a sharper contrast with the predictable response of incumbent Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who declared, when the automatic fiscal cliff sequestration threatened deep cuts in the Defense budget, that profound economies at the Pentagon would be “devastating.”
In less than two months we will face another fiscal deadline in which Republicans will threaten to deprive the government of the money it has already voted to spend on pain of allowing the government to shut down and encouraging the ratings agencies to further downgrade America’s ability to repay its debt. According to Mitch McConnell, the GOP will offer no more revenue increases, and he expects the savings to come from cuts in entitlements such as Medicare. The appointment of Hagel offers a new dimension to this standoff between the two parties: an Army veteran war hero defense secretary whose patriotism can hardly be questioned who believes the Pentagon is obese and should be put on a diet. If there is no agreement over what should be cut and which taxes raised and the automatic deep cuts to public spending start, Hagel would roll up his sleeves and happily take an ax to the military. For Republicans who believe spending cuts should be restricted to the old, the poor, the sick and the lame, Hagel offers an unpalatable alternative.
Forget Homeland and Downton Abbey, the hottest TV in the coming weeks is going to be the double bill of confirmation hearings in which the twin Vietnam vets Hagel and John Kerry face torrid cross-examination from their old pals in the Senate. In the case of Kerry, we may expect a return of the Swift boat accusations that three of his Vietnam medals were inappropriately awarded. Kerry, who volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam, failed to confront his accusers when standing against the sometime Texas Air National Guardsman George W. Bush in 2004. Nearly nine years on, he will no doubt have equipped himself to fiercely counter the charges if his fellow senators dare bring them up.
The Hagel hearings are likely to be even more lively, as his old Republican friends get the rare chance to explore some of the colorful and candid remarks he has made about them and their party. In particular, he can expect to be quizzed about exactly where and when he would bring down the guillotine on some of the Pentagon’s most extravagant practices. He could justifiably answer that he needs notice to answer such questions in detail as he would need to get his knees under his desk and make a proper assessment before coming to too precipitate conclusions. When Hagel joined the Army, he chose not to take a soft option serving on a secret missile program in Germany and opted instead to fight in the Vietnam jungle. If Hagel is true to form and is asked some pointed questions about how he would run the Pentagon, he may well forgo the easy course and talk truth to power.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R) walks past U.S. President Barack Obama (L) after Obama announced the nomination of Hagel to be his new Secretary of Defense, at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque