Hagel and the future of the U.S. military

By Dale R. Herspring

There has been a lot of talk about President Barack Obama’s recent nominees for Cabinet positions.  The nomination of Sen. John Kerry to head the State Department came first. Jack Lew is going to Treasury, and is expected to follow Obama’s fiscal policies to the letter. John Brennan, a career CIA employee who has advised the president on intelligence matters most of the first four years, is Obama’s choice to be CIA director. A question for him is whether he approved of water-boarding. Finally, there is former Sen. Chuck Hagel.

Kerry’s nomination is expected to sail through the Senate.  After all, he is a member of that body, and even Republicans like Sen. John McCain are likely to vote for him.

Lew will face some opposition from fiscal hawks who fear that putting him in Treasury will be like putting Obama there. I expect his hearing to get heated at times, but I doubt the Senate will reject him. After all, the president should be able to appoint whomever he wants to his Cabinet.

This leaves Hagel for the Defense post. The Secretary of Defense is a critical position.  No matter how much a branch of the armed forces may privately oppose an action — such as Donald Rumsfeld in the war In Iraq — the Defense secretary can override their recommendations. That is how civil-military relations work in any administration.

Let us consider the criticisms against Hagel. First, he has been called an anti-Semite as well as anti-Israel. In my view, holding Hagel’s criticism of Israel against him is nonsense. 

I strongly disagree with the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel. The United States has a special relationship with Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East and the only democracy in a sea of authoritarian states. That does not mean that Tel Aviv is cannot be criticized. I wish I had a dime for every time I heard comments like Hagel’s criticism of Israel and the Jewish lobby in Washington.  I heard such comments in the State Department, the Pentagon and even in the House of Representative. We might try to adopt a new policy for one of the other countries in the region, but as soon as word leaked, there would be a call from the White House telling us to forget it, that the president doesn’t want to fight the Jewish lobby. 

Another criticism is that Hagel is to the left of Obama on the use of coercive diplomacy.  He is certainly far to the left of Leon Panetta and his predecessor. This is a concern. Hagel will dance to whatever tune Obama sings — as he should. But what kind of advice would he give Obama? Would he preside over the destruction of the American military, as some have suggested? Given some of the things he has said, there appears to be cause for concern.  The secretary of defense is the key go-between when it comes to advising a president with no military experience on everything from the military budget to the use of force overseas. Given Obama’s tendency to cut the military budget or avoid at all costs the use of military force, many worry that Hagel would only reinforce those tendencies.

While such policies would please the far left, the fact is that military force is a vital part of foreign policy. Those who believe you either don’t have to have sufficient force or you won’t use it are wrong. If that happens, as has been occurring under Obama, American interests and importance will go down markedly. 

One of the biggest concerns of those in uniform is not Hagel’s outspoken nature; many military personnel are outspoken behind closed doors. Rather, it is his unpredictability they worry about. He has shown that he can change directions quickly, and even reverse direction. While changing opinions itself is not alarming, the military requires stability and predictability.  Otherwise, planning becomes impossible, and when that happens, the use of military force either to defend the United States or to project U.S .influence in the world becomes moot.

Finally, one hopes Hagel will not turn into another Rumsfeld, who surrounded himself with pliant senior officers instead of with those prepared to speak truth to power.

Will Hagel be confirmed? I expect a major battle in the Senate Hearing Room. But he will be confirmed, even if many on the Hill think he may be a disastrous choice.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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