Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon: Rough Passage, Welcome Result

President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary forced the GOP to choose between the past—especially a discredited president who blundered disastrously in Iraq—and the future, represented by a Republican who felt more loyalty to his country than his party. Unfortunately, the GOP chose the past.

Ironically, a group of Republicans wrote the president urging him to withdraw the nomination, contending that Hagel’s lackluster performance at his confirmation hearing raised “serious doubts about his basic competence to meet the substantial demands of the office.” Yet it is his critics who failed to demonstrate even a basic interest in military policy and to justify the trust placed in them by voters. 

For instance, the hearings on Hagel’s nomination amounted to a poor imitation of Kabuki Theater, with Republicans more interested in scoring cheap political points than in discussing substantive issues. While GOP members complained that Hagel was ill-prepared for the challenges facing the Pentagon, they failed to ask him serious questions about serious issues—coping with budget cuts, simultaneously engaging and constraining China, dealing with a fading NATO.

That’s too bad, because Hagel probably had answers. Far better answers than would come from the GOP’s permanent war caucus. In fact, Republican senators like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are traditional tax, borrow, and spend liberals when it comes to the military: bigger and more expensive is always better. They have no idea how to cope with the coming end of Washington’s wild debt party.

Hagel offers a sharp contrast that embarrasses his former partisan colleagues. Wrote Michael Hirsh in National Journal: “what has gone largely unnoticed by the punditocracy is that, over the past decade or so, the former Republican senator from Nebraska has distinguished himself with subtle, well-thought-out, and accurate analyses of some of America’s greatest strategic challenges of the 21st century—especially the response to 9/11—while many of his harshest critics got these issues quite wrong.”

Hagel’s tough confirmation battle was but the first of the many troubles he is likely to face in his new job. Recalibrating America’s role in the world to reflect greater foreign influences and fewer domestic resources may pose difficulties nearly as vexing as coping with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

However, Chuck Hagel has the ability to rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, he isn’t likely to get much help from Capitol Hill. Certainly not from his old GOP colleagues, who appear to be locked in the past. Secretary Hagel will need to look elsewhere to find support for the necessary transformation of America’s foreign and military policies.