The real reason Obama wants Hagel

By Nicholas Wapshott
January 8, 2013

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

14 comments

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I like him – sounds like exactly what and who we need right now. not sure how the gop thinks they will control any discussion due to their monority position in the senate. i also applaud obama for doing as clinton did; picking a republican for secretary of defense. classy move and the perfect guy for the job in both cases. let the gop stew – hagel is right about them.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

Hagel is exactly what is needed. An independent thinker with practical experience in the field – honorable at that.

Come on we all know how war contracts end up where we pay 5 dollars for a nail. When Hagel trims down the enormous pork out of Defence – this will embarrass the other government branches to do similar.

I think Obama is choosing the right approach to pare back government. Attack the sacred cow and dissect the corruption out so we get the same services for 1/2 the budget. Set this in motion across all our government budgets.

Smart strategy.

If he can pull this off – he would be a great President – remembered in history for leading real change.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

Wonderful!

We need more people like him in Washington.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Wise Choice Mr. President.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

A lot of people (especially the modern neo-con GOP) have lost sight of the really important issue here. Elected officials in DC should work for Americans, not a particularly party or ideology. Shenanigans such as the no-tax or right-to-life pledges have only served to prove that many Republicans have voluntarily abandoned reality in exchange for willful ignorance. They continue to shout slogans like free market capitalism or worse, Biblical values, while failing to realize that those are just on-paper theories. The reality is not going resemble those naive and unrealistic ideals, not unless we actually want a crony and theocratic state.

With that said, the *indepedent streaks* that Hagel has exhibited in the past is not a bad thing. This isn’t the Nazi party or Baath party where all members are required to pledge their royalty to a set of rigid and obtuse ideologies. There is little question that our defense spending needs to be reigned in. How can it not be a part of the budget cut equation when it accounts for one-fourth of our federal budget, including the Iraq/Afghan wars which are funded through additional spending bills outside the budget. We no longer need a massive and bloated military that out-class every other nation in the world by at least two decades. The threat of a global, multiple theatres, conventional war is significantly diminished since the Cold War. As such, we shouldn’t give blank checks to defense contractors who have given us the $400 billion F-35 program (50% cost overrun) and the cancelled RAH-66 Comanche program ($7 billion already spent). Frankly, anyone who argues otherwise is deluding themselves.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

The Israeli lapdog Republicans and wealthy Jewish bankers who control Republicans, can object all they want to, but Hagle WILL be Secretary of Defense.
Thank you Mr. President for caring about our country and not the demands of Israel or other special interest groups who want to control the US.
That is why the majority of Americans voted for you.
Next step, throw the Republicans out of Congress, and it is coming.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

I really hope he can do it. The military/industrial complex has had a 70+ year run without anyone making a serious attempt at reigning them in.

Posted by anarcurt | Report as abusive

The U.S. spends roughly the same $$$, annually, as the next 16 or so highest-defense spending countries in the world…combined. We have troops and aircraft and ships and submarines all over the world. We’re paying for weapons systems in some cases the Pentagon doesn’t even want, because the parts are sourced from so many Congressional districts around the country for each system that no Congressman wants to vote against them for fear of fallout from a few lost jobs in his District. This isn’t the 80′s when we are trying to spend the U.S.S.R. into oblivion by forcing them to go bankrupt trying to keep up. We need to be leaner, meaner, and smarter, all the while continuing research and development. We need to provide adequately for our veterans after they have served. But we can cut the defense budget significantly without materially impacting our own security…not overnight, but it can be done, and it must start somewhere. Here’s hoping like hell Chuck Hagel gets the confirmation he deserves. He’s the right guy at the right time.

Posted by lateralgs | Report as abusive

Hagel would bring most of the experience that led Eisenhower to say, as President, something like “God help if someone sits here who doesn’t know as much as I do about how the military works”.

Biographers said Ike would go through funding requests line by line paring down or editing huge funding requests, at a time when our nuclear arsenal was growing at an exponential rate, with big programs for bombers and land and sub-based missiles too.

Ike’s many comments comparing the costs of infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals to pieces of modern military hardware are still relevant to economic recovery.

Another parallel might be most troubling: I think Ike’s foreign policy reputation had his successes diluted by too much faith or latitude given to an ambitious CIA. “Just a few more overflights before we stop”, contrary to White House cautions, led to the U-2 incident. The Mossadegh coup gave us 25 years of cheap oil under the Shah (maybe not so cheap with aid for the Shah) followed by 30+ years of conflict. As drone wars expand and we re-evaluate global strategies and defense priorities, some historical reflection back to the 1950′s by Defense, State and Intelligence leaders seems prudent.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive

It seems everyone, except Senators (GOP and many Dems too) think this guy is a great pick… Is it because he actually knows what he is doing and will impact their gravy train of bribes?

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

Chuck Hagel is a breath of fresh air. The difference between him and Sen. McCain is that both proved their allegiance to the US in the service, but Hagel never stop proving his love of country. McCain is more interested in McCain.

Hagel is a free-thinking pragmatist, exactly what we need more of in our government, and exactly why the Republicans are so opposed to him. They despise free thinking.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

I support Mr. Hagel’s endeavors to trim down Defence expenditures that are out of control. Republicans are ready to strip the Public of their promised security cushion, whether SS, Medicare, Medicade, anything at all, but not what really is draining our budget. They themselves have it good, why to care for others.
Working for a Defense Contractor, I discovered that corruption is rampant under the disguise of National Security. Inflated Resumes, never checked for accuracy, is the norm. Defense Program Managers know it; keep it hush hush under the table and do not care to bring it up and talk about it. I wish there are many like Mr. Hagel, Chuck, a man of pricipals and fairness. I salute you and our President’s choice as well. Did the Republican Party learn anything from their mistakes after the latest election? I donot think so. Otherwise, they will change their stance and support our President and their colleague: A true American Veteran.

Posted by KeryVane | Report as abusive

“… Hagel has already attracted venomous opposition from his old colleagues ….”

That’s what it is about, at the core. Obama has himself endured 4 years of bitter animosity from Capitol Hill Republicans, plus an extremely bitter re-election campaign. Now, he’s looking forward to 4 more years that will be just as bitter, if not more so. At this point, he is apparently signaling “No more Mr. Nice Guy.” It’s not about Chuck Hagel, and it’s not about the issues that Hagel is criticized on. It’s about the fact that Hagel draws this kind of reaction from Capitol Hill Republicans. Do you doubt it? Look at the Jack Lew nomination. If we had not had that pre-emptive attack on Susan Rice as Secretary of State, we probably wouldn’t be seeing either the Hagel or the Lew nominations today. Now, the Capitol Hill Republicans have to decide how much political capital they can direct against Hagel and Lew while at the same time reserving enough for what they want to do with regard to the debt ceiling, the budget, and gun control. The problem the Capitol Hill Republicans have is that, on one hand, they hate Obama but, collectively, they have not been able to do one smart thing since Obama took office.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Hagel would threaten to cut through a lot of the enshrined nonsense in Washington and thus the enshrined nonsense fears him. He might not bow down low enough to Israel to please the Lobby. They want one to get his nose in the dirt for them. He might point out the lack of need to pursue an imperial foreign policy of occupation of Muslim nations and making war against them. He might not want to pay for all the toys the Air Force and Army and Navy want; he might tell them to play with the toys they already have and that those are more than enough. In short he would be a terrible threat to sacred interests that have seldom if ever been challenged in many decades.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive