Tag: secretary of defense

Ashton Carter: Next in Line as SecDef

Although the rollout was messy, and the official announcement is still pending, the White House has settled on Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. I have a piece just up at The Daily Caller explaining Carter’s long list of challenges: 

He will be expected to manage several ongoing wars, at a time when the public wants to kill bad guys without necessarily using U.S. ground troops to do it. Carter must also oversee numerous major new and costly weapons programs (especially nuclear weapons) in an increasingly tight budgetary environment. The Pentagon’s base budget (excluding the costs of the wars) remains near historic highs in inflation-adjusted terms, and personnel expenses are likely to remain high despite some reductions in the numbers of men and women serving in uniform. The just-released draft budget implements modest cost controls, but The Military Times reports that these “are likely to irritate outside advocates who pushed against any pay and benefits cuts.” Absent significant reform, military pay and benefits will place additional downward pressure on both new weapon R&D and normal operations and maintenance.

On top of all this, the rancor surrounding Hagel’s departure has shone new light on the White House’s tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the West Wing. It is reasonable to ask “Why would anyone want this job?”

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.

The Hagel Hearings: Congressional Politics at Its Worst

The confirmation hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon are mercifully over. His wobbly performance earned derision among neoconservatives, but he responded as they intended to an interrogation that was all about politics, not policy. 

As I have noted before, Hagel is under fire because he disputed neoconservative nostrums to speak unpleasant truths to the Republican Party. He was an orthodox conservative, including on foreign policy. However, he was an Eisenhower, not a Dubya, Republican: Hagel criticized the debacle in Iraq, urged negotiation to forestall Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and backed reductions in today’s bloated military budget. General turned President Dwight Eisenhower could not have put it better. 

But this enraged a GOP that has turned perpetual war into its most important foreign policy plank. Hence the ludicrous attempt to paint him as an anti-Semite. Only slightly less dishonest was the performance of Hagel’s Republican interlocutors in the Senate, who asked the sort of questions which could not be honestly answered without wrecking the political façade behind which legislators on both sides of the aisle hide. His performance was disappointing, but far more striking is the fact that the uber-hawks who badgered him over every past statement exhibited little interest in exploring the most important challenges facing America. 

Consider the analysis of questions from Rosie Gray and Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed.  They counted 166 questions about Israel—an important ally, but more important than every other ally combined? There were 144 questions about Iran. No one wants Tehran to build nukes, but U.S. intelligence does not believe Iran has an active weapons program and there is no evidence that the Iranian government cannot be deterred, as were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Surely there are options short of war. And is Iran that much more important than Afghanistan, where Americans continue to die, which rated only 20 questions? Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) fixated on Iraq, an invasion that should never have been launched, irrespective of the impact of the “surge.” And from which, if he hadn’t noticed, U.S. troops have been withdrawn. 

Nothing else received serious attention at the hearings. Not how to adjust America’s foreign policy to reflect inevitable Pentagon budget cuts, since Washington no longer can afford to police the globe. Not China, including the worrisome possibility of war between Japan and China over worthless islands in the Sea of Japan. Not North Korea and the enduring challenge of dealing with the world’s most malign actor.  

Not Europe, which continues to under-invest in the military while relying on America for its defense. Not Africa, where the U.S. is steadily being drawn into more conflicts. Not Russia, which, despite the difficult bilateral relationship, has been helpful in Afghanistan and Iran. Not Venezuela, where the possible death of Hugo Chavez could open up opportunities for reform and engagement with America.

And the neoconservatives claim to be serious about international issues and military capabilities. 

Chuck Hagel is eminently qualified to be Secretary of Defense. As my colleague Chris Preble has noted, Hagel’s thinking is mainstream and noncontroversial. Obviously, one can disagree with him on particular issues, such as the possibility of nuclear disarmament.  However, the president still will make the ultimate decisions. Hagel will bring a fresh perspective to administration discussions of foreign and military policy. That is reason enough to welcome him to the Pentagon. 

Chuck Hagel Is Not Controversial

Chuck Hagel’s most vocal and persistent opponents failed to block his nomination to be the next secretary of defense, and most observers predict that he will be confirmed, despite additional unknown persons having spent untold sums to block his path to the Pentagon.

The most outrageous and unsubstantiated charges that were invented against the decorated Vietnam veteran and former senator have been demolished, but not before they crowded out a serious discussion of our national security priorities. 

Reports from his meetings with senators in recent weeks suggest that Hagel’s answers during Thursday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee will fit well within the boundaries of what the Beltway foreign policy elite deem acceptable. Chuck Hagel is not as controversial as he was made out to be, and the foreign policy consensus is likely to hold. 

I believed—and still believe—that Hagel will be a good secretary of defense, because he seems generally disinclined to support foolish wars. But he is no peacenik and he’s no radical. He may question assumptions here and there, or give President Obama honest advice that he might not want to hear. But the odds are long against Chuck Hagel being a truly transformative SecDef. 

First, the secretary of defense does not set the nation’s foreign policy; the president does. And on almost every subject where Hagel is—or was—viewed as controversial, President Obama has hewed to the establishment line. Obama expanded the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, even though he never seemed to believe that the so-called surge would work. He intervened in Libya, and reserves the right to do so elsewhere, without so much as a wave to the Congress. Obama has proved equally disinterested in congressional oversight (or any other oversight, for that matter), when it comes to assassinating suspected terrorists—including U.S. citizens—at will. On nuclear weapons, Hagel’s past statements in favor of downsizing the arsenal line up with Obama’s—and are similar to almost every other president before him, including Ronald Reagan. Finally, ahead of his hearing Hagel deftly associated himself with the president, and the status-quo, by explaining that the “window is closing” for diplomacy with Iran. 

The second factor in the way of a Hagelian transformation—were he so inclined—is the military-industrial complex. David Ignatius observed that Hagel likes to think of himself as an Eisenhower Republican, but he will have a devil of a time reining in the MIC that Ike warned about. It was difficult enough for Robert Gates to sell modest spending restraint (not actual cuts), and Leon Panetta was disinclined to even pretend, favoring instead the threat of defense cuts to cow Republicans into supporting higher taxes. Hagel has an even greater hill to climb because his predecessors wanted the public to believe that they had already trimmed the fat. By implication, any further reductions will cut into the military’s flesh and bones. 

In other words, additional cuts would require a rethinking of the military’s core missions, and might even force U.S. leaders to embark on a serious effort to shift and shed burdens from U.S. troops and U.S. taxpayers to wealthy, stable allies who benefit from global peace and security, but contribute little to the cause. 

But the president would have to lead such a foreign policy shift, and Barack Obama has shown no enthusiasm for such an undertaking. Given the interests aligned to preserve the status quo, it is clear that it will take much more than one truly committed reformer in the Pentagon to effect meaningful change in our national security strategy. 

All that said, I am happy that Hagel appears to have survived one of the nastiest nomination battles in recent memory, and I hold out hope, as Justin Logan wrote earlier this month, that his ability to prevail will encourage other aspiring leaders to abandon their fear of the small and shrinking pro-war faction. 

Hagel’s Common Sense on Cuba

Foes of Chuck Hagel have found another reason to oppose his nomination for secretary of defense: he supported ending the 50-year old embargo on Cuba. Hagel also called the idea that the government in Havana constitutes a terrorist threat to the United States “goofy”, referring to Fidel Castro as a “toothless old dinosaur.” Supposedly, this proves he’s weak and won’t stand up to world dictators when vital U.S. interests are at stake. 

In reality, Hagel belongs to a growing group of conservatives who have come to realize the failure of U.S. policy towards Cuba. This group includes former senator Richard Lugar, who until recently was the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Jeff Flake, a freshman Republican from Arizona. Even Paul Ryan (R-WI), the GOP’s former VP candidate, voted against the embargo the last time it came to a vote in the House in 2005. 

You don’t need to think hard to understand why the embargo and travel ban on Cuba have failed: the Castro brothers are still in power in Havana. Five decades of economic sanctions—the most stringent Washington has imposed on any country—have failed to bring about a democratic transformation of Cuba. Moreover, the embargo has served as a scapegoat to the regime.

Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, a leading dissident in Cuba, has aptly summed up that strategy: “[Castro] wants to continue exaggerating the image of the external enemy which has been vital for the Cuban Government during decades, an external enemy which can be blamed for the failure of the totalitarian model implanted here.” Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez has called the embargo “the regime’s excuse for all its failures” and pointed out that its existence has undermined the work of dissidents on the island. 

Proponents of the embargo (who are now opposing Hagel’s nomination) inadvertently accept this reality. Our friend Frank Calzón, at the Center for a Free Cuba, mentions in the Washington Post several instances when Havana rebutted Washington’s outreach efforts: “Each solicitation has been met with aggressive action.” Why? Perhaps because the Castro regime fears that an end to the embargo and travel ban could weaken its grip on power? 

Ironically, those who argue that national security concerns are reasons to oppose changing U.S. policy towards Cuba ignore that the embargo has also become somewhat of a U.S. security liability itself. A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office points out that enforcing the embargo and travel ban diverts limited resources from homeland security that could be used to keep terrorists and criminals out of the United States. The GAO report warned that arrival inspections from Cuba intended to enforce the embargo are “straining Customs and Border Patrol’s capacity to inspect other travelers according to its mission of keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens out of the country.”     

It would be naïve to think that ending the embargo will somehow transform Cuba into a democratic society. As long as the Castros are in change, that won’t happen. But it’s equally naïve to believe that there are great benefits and no significant downsides to the current policy. Chuck Hagel doesn’t have a Cuba problem. Just the opposite. He has shown common sense in ending one of Washington’s most anachronistic foreign policies.

Hagel’s a Good Fight

Chuck Hagel isn’t the consistent dove his opponents say he is, and he’s no civil libertarian. But his nomination as secretary of defense is still a fight worth having.

Hagel shouldn’t have much trouble in the Senate armed services committee. Among the panel’s Democrats, Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan is a Hagel booster, as is Rhode Island senator Jack Reed. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) seems supportive. Thus far the others have not commented or are noncommittal. On the other side, Roger Wicker (R-MS) has announced his opposition (via twitter), and John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) seem likely to vote no. But the incoming ranking member, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), was positively inclined a month ago. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) appear open to persuasion. With broad Democratic support likely, it will take only a couple Republicans to get the majority Hagel needs to reach the full Senate.

But there may be only a few Republican yes votes in the Senate. Senators John Coryn (R-OK), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Dan Coats (R-IN) will vote no. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) threatens a hold. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is lukewarm. A few others, including both Nebraska senators, are noncommittal. The rest are silent, so far. Most Democrats should vote yes. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) seem supportive. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offer vague non-endorsements. At this point, who knows what will happen in a floor vote, but with 55 Democrats, 60 needed for confirmation, and an engaged White House, Hagel’s odds seem better than even.

As Chris Preble notes, one virtue of Hagel becoming secretary is that he is willing to cut the massive defense budget and is more skeptical than most Washington bigwigs about war. He has a tendency to offer sensible observations that count as apostasy in U.S. foreign policy circles. Examples include his claim that the U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba is senseless (a view shared by most people outside Miami, which brought Rubio’s hold threat), the notion that diplomatic engagement with odious regimes is generally worthwhile, doubts about the utility of coercive sanctions on Iran (which academics that study the matter mostly share), and, of course, his willingness to admit the existence of an Israeli lobby (granted, he shouldn’t have said “jewish”) and a distinction between U.S. and Israeli interests.

As Hagel’s more reasonable critics note, having never served on a defense committee, his qualifications are not ideal. Serving in Vietnam does not teach you much about how to run the Pentagon. But Hagel’s military experience does seem to have encouraged his skepticism about the wisdom of generals and admirals—a useful tendency for a Secretary of Defense, especially one that may have to overcome the brass’s resistance to ending a war and implementing a drawdown. Deputies like Ashton Carter can help with management.

Another virtue of Hagel’s nomination is that it may show that the interests that police speech on these issues are not as powerful as they seem. As nearly everyone reading this knows, the most vocal opponents of Hagel’s nomination are the familiar band of neoconservatives ever-eager for war, the editorialists that reliably agree with them, and some pro-Israel (really Likunik) lobbying groups. Also opposed to Hagel are some gay-rights advocates angered by his voting record on that issue, including his 1998 comment calling an ambassadorial nominee “openly, aggressively gay,” for which he recently apologized.

If Hagel loses in the Senate, many will say that the Israeli lobby and their neoconservative friends did it. His loss, you might say, will enhance their perceived power and quiet those tempted to challenge the ideology they enforce. But since Obama floated his name and brought attacks, not nominating him would have had the same result. So why not now have a fight?

There may be some political benefit even in losing. Neoconservative attacks on Hagel come largely on matters where the public takes Hagel’s side—the military budget, bombing Iran, the occupation of Iraq, the wisdom of intervention in Syria. If Senators like McCain, Graham, and Kelly Ayotte (of the lately anti-war New Hampshire) attack Hagel on these grounds, they may harm themselves and their cause. Floor debate might allow a senator to ask Dan Coats how being anti-war means disrespecting the military. Even on Israel, there may be virtue in exposing a wider public to the irony of the Israeli lobby intimating people by attacking someone for saying the Israeli lobby intimidates people.

If Hagel wins, it will demonstrate that his opponents aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Neoconservatives obviously lose regularly; various wars they said our security depends on never occurred, and those that did were generally smaller than they’d like. The Israel lobby, on the other hand, seems more successful. But they regularly win because there is rarely anyone strong pushing back—no Palestinian lobby, for example. Americans are so safe from Middle-Eastern trouble that, most of the time, few costs—blood, treasure, votes—come from doing whatever those most interested want. When their ambitions bring conflict with something powerful, like a lobby of similar heft, strongly anti-war sentiment, or a determined president just reelected, the other side can win.

I argued that Susan Rice was a bad choice for secretary of state because she is unfailingly pro-war, and that her ascension would show, again, that being pro-war is generally politically safer than being against it. In terms of perception, Hagel is now nearly the opposite. If he became secretary it would indicate that it’s not verboten for ambitious politicos to be realists that question the virtue of violent meddling in the Middle East and supportive of substantial military cuts. A few less people might bite their tongue for fear that someday the likes of Abe Foxman, Bill Kristol, and their PR flaks will call them anti-semites and keep them from getting an important job. One appointment may not unleash the perestroika needed to undermine the hawkish consensus that prevails on these issues, but it would help.

The Neocons’ Fight over Chuck Hagel Moves to Act Two

By nominating Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, after an excruciatingly long period of uncertainty and speculation, President Obama has demonstrated that he is disinclined to follow the advice of the neoconservatives who have been his harshest critics. Bill Kristol’s aggressive campaign to dissuade Obama from picking Hagel failed. Now the attention turns to a fight over his confirmation in the Senate. In the end, I believe he will be confirmed.

After all, such fights are rare. Presidents are generally granted wide latitude in picking members of their cabinet, and it is unlikely that many of the 55 Senators who caucus with the Democrats (including independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) will pick a fight with a just-re-elected Democratic president. Such a fight would erode Obama’s political capital, capital that he will need to push through his—and their—domestic agenda.

The remaining unknown, therefore, is whether the neoconservatives’ grip over the Republican Party has finally been broken. Kristol and the neocons will argue that Hagel should not be confirmed. Will Republicans, aside from the predictable voices in the Senate’s interventionist caucus, listen?

It is remarkable that the party continues to consult with the same people who championed the wars that have so tarnished the GOP’s once stellar brand. But consider the case against Hagel on its merits. Hagel is not a pacifist, and certainly not the dove that his critics have claimed he is. He remains firmly within the foreign policy mainstream in Washington, and has supported past wars that I have opposed. But his general inclination, hardened after the debacle of Iraq, is to avoid foreign crusades, and to resist pressure to send U.S. troops into harm’s way in pursuit of unclear objectives that do not advance U.S. interests. That is a mindset that the neoconservatives cannot abide.

But there are broader principles at play, including traditional deference to a president’s wishes with respect to nominees, a deference that is warranted when the person only serves at the discretion of the president (unlike, for example, judges who serve for life). Even conservative commentators who have questions about some of Hagel’s views, including George Will, have signaled that Hagel should be confirmed. Other respected foreign policy hands who came out in favor of Hagel before the nomination was announced include: Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinni (and nine other retired senior military officers), nine former ambassadors, including Nicholas Burns, Ryan Crocker Daniel Kurtzer, and Thomas Pickering. In a separate op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Crocker reaffirmed the group’s support for the Hagel nomination, praising Hagel “as a person of integrity, courage and wisdom.” The neocons, therefore, by picking a fight over Hagel, have also taken on a distinguished roster of foreign policy experts. Republican senators wishing to put distance between the party and the neocons should be happy to confirm a nominee who shares their views on most issues, and who is supported by people who have not been so badly wrong, so often.

I don’t believe that Barack Obama chose Chuck Hagel in order to humiliate the Republican Party. I don’t think he intended to shine the light on the bitter divide between the neoconservatives and traditional foreign policy realists. I think he picked Hagel because he likes him, and trusts him. But I agree with an anonymous Obama administration official about what the Hagel fight could mean for the GOP (via BuzzFeed): “If the Republicans are going to look at Chuck Hagel, a decorated war hero and Republican who served two terms in the Senate, and vote no because he bucked the party line on Iraq, then they are so far in the wilderness that they’ll never get out.”