Since Robert Gates became defense secretary in 2006, the U.S. has had very capable leadership in the Pentagon as his successor, Leon Panetta, like Gates, was an exceptional defense chief. That’s why I find the bruising process our new defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, just underwent in his 58 to 41 Senate confirmation so troubling.
Gates, a Republican, served in both the Bush and Obama administrations and was responsible for restoring Pentagon morale and repairing Congressional relations which had suffered under Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure. He also gets credit for overseeing our stabilization strategy in Iraq and he put in place $78 billion in defense cuts over a 5-year period that are separate from the proposed sequestration action currently facing the Pentagon.
Panetta, a Democrat, oversaw the final drawdown of forces from Iraq and approved a plan to transition out of Afghanistan. He was also a fierce advocate in alerting Congress that our nation’s military readiness may dramatically suffer if the indiscriminate defense cuts proposed in the sequester are implemented as currently proposed. Furthermore, Panetta rightly lifted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban allowing gays to openly serve in uniform and recently announced that women will soon be allowed to serve in all military combat jobs.
In nominating Chuck Hagel, a former two-term GOP senator who overlapped with the president for four years in the Senate, President Obama picked someone, who, until recently, had been highly regarded by his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle. In addition to making his cabinet more bi-partisan, the characteristic the president most likely admires in Hagel is that he’s an independent and strategic thinker; just what we need in a defense chief at this critical time. Unfortunately, it’s his independent thinking and veering away from established neoconservative foreign policy orthodoxy that got Hagel crossed with his Republican Senate colleagues.
As The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported in late January, during a 2009 meeting with Hagel, the president asked him what he thought about foreign policy and defense issues. Hagel responded, “We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don’t control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they (the military and diplomats) tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what we’re using the military for. Afghanistan will be defining for your presidency in the first term; perhaps even for a second term. The key (is) not to get ‘bogged down.’”
At his confirmation hearing, Senate Republicans grilled Hagel by focusing on past statements he’d made on intervening in Iran as well as on the influence pro-Israel organizations had in Washington, and on his evolving views concerning the rationale for the war in Iraq. While the pretext given was simply questioning his policy positions, in a rare moment of candor Senator John McCain expressed the real reason for the virulent opposition; personal pettiness: “…it goes back to there’s a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly and said he was the worst President since Herbert Hoover and said the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which was nonsense. He was anti-his own party and people - people don’t forget that.” McCain later flatly said Hagel was “not qualified” to be secretary of defense.
Of course during his 2000 presidential bid, candidate McCain had a different view when discussing his potential cabinet, “As far as secretary of defense is concerned, there’s a lot of people that could do that. One of them, I think, is Senator Chuck Hagel.” In his 2008 presidential run, McCain vowed that Hagel could have a place in his administration, but, as readers may recall, Hagel never endorsed McCain that year.
Even more disturbing was the ‘intimidation by insinuation’ McCarthyism employed by Senate neophyte Ted Cruz. Not only did Cruz question Hagel’s character, but his patriotism too. And, this wasn’t his first time as Cruz, who never served in uniform, described then-cabinet nominees John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as, “less than ardent fans of the military.” Kerry and Hagel, both wounded Vietnam War vets, have five Purple Hearts between them.
Most astonishing is that Senate Republicans even voted to deny cloture on Hagel’s nomination which was an historic, first-ever successful (albeit temporary) filibuster of a cabinet nominee.
I’ll be the first to admit that Hagel didn’t help himself during his confirmation hearing as he didn’t always come across as well prepared. That being said, he, and the country, certainly didn’t deserve the spectacle his former colleagues heaped upon him and upon us. His hearing just goes to show how crass our politics has come. Apparently Senate Republicans would rather smear and sacrifice one of their own to weaken him and to spite the president; even in matters of national security.
In academic year 2003 – 2004 while a student at the National Defense University, I was privileged to hear then-Senator Hagel speak candidly on national security issues in a non-attribution environment. What I can say now is that I was highly impressed with him and, like his two predecessors, I think our country is very fortunate to have Chuck Hagel, a former enlisted Soldier, as our new defense secretary.
Ken Lynn is a retired USAF colonel and an adjunct online instructor with the USAF Air University.