By Megan Scully, CQ Roll Call
If he makes it through Senate confirmation, Chuck Hagel would become Defense secretary at a critical time for a department facing likely spending cuts that will force tough decisions about the military’s role in the world and the weapons and skills it needs to carry out its missions — and, perhaps even more importantly, what it can live without.
The Nebraska Republican, or whoever the next Pentagon chief is, will have to redesign the military after a decade of war into a smaller force with fewer resources at its disposal, said Andrew J. Bacevich, an Army veteran who teaches history at Boston University.
Hagel’s vision for what he wants the military to look like in the next five or 10 years may be the most important issue he could be asked at his confirmation hearing. So far, however, his critics have focused mostly on his past statements related to Israel, Iran sanctions and other foreign policy topics.
“All this hoopla about Israel and Iran is mostly a distraction,” Bacevich said, adding that it would be a “missed opportunity” for lawmakers to focus on those issues — and not the future direction of the military — during Hagel’s confirmation hearing.
Unlike some of the other candidates considered for the top Pentagon job, Hagel is something of an outsider in defense circles, with little track record on or known allegiance to any of the military’s multibillion-dollar ground, sea and air programs or the companies that produce these pricey weapons. Indeed, campaign finance records show that he collected more money from the livestock industry than from defense donors in his last Senate campaign.
During his two terms in the Senate, Hagel focused intensely on foreign relations, diving into military matters when he bucked his party and came out in opposition to the Iraq war.
Hagel also supported nuclear nonproliferation efforts, introducing a bill in 2007 with then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals around the world and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and related material and technology. Other cosponsors included Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., Obama’s pick for secretary of State.
But Hagel, the first enlisted soldier ever nominated to be Defense secretary, never sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And when he did weigh in during debates on annual defense authorization bills, his efforts were often aimed at improving care and the quality of life for members of the military and their families.
Where Would He Trim?
The biggest hint of his leanings on defense spending came in a 2011 interview with the Financial Times, in which Hagel called the Pentagon’s budget “bloated” and said it could be “pared down.” The Defense Department, Hagel added during that interview, has not looked at itself strategically or critically in a long time.
His thinking is hardly at odds with many lawmakers, including some Republicans, who have become increasingly frustrated with the Pentagon’s wasteful spending as it enjoyed historic budget increases over a decade of war. Just what Hagel thinks the Pentagon could do without, however, is virtually unknown.
His outsider status may not be a bad thing, some analysts say. The next Defense secretary will have to grapple not only with budget cuts, but also what the military’s post-Iraq and Afghanistan role should be.
Assuming he is confirmed, Hagel will almost immediately get to work overseeing the Quadrennial Defense Review, a once-every-four-years document outlining defense plans and priorities. During his tenure, he will also start long-term budget planning that stretches into the 2020s, when bills for big-ticket items like the Air Force’s next bomber and the Navy’s next ballistic-missile submarine come due.
“Maybe it’s an advantage to have a secretary who doesn’t come with a lot of biases, a lot of pre-judgments,” said David Berteau, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If I were a component in DoD, I’d be looking at this as an opportunity because if you don’t have a bias, then presumably you have an open mind. And this may be a good time for an open mind.”
Berteau, however, made one caveat: Hagel’s deputy must be well-versed in navigating the Pentagon bureaucracy. The current deputy secretary, Ashton B. Carter, previously served as the department’s acquisition chief — experience that, Berteau said, lines up with the qualities and characteristics that Hagel would need in his No. 2.