Washington Watch

Feb. 1, 2013

Hagel braces for a fight

President Obama’s nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense could make Hagel, 66, the first former enlisted combat infantryman and veteran of the Vietnam War to run the Defense Department. Hagel received two Purple Heart awards for combat injuries as a squad leader and still carries shrapnel in his body.

Hagel served two terms in the Senate—retiring in 2009—and his résumé includes serving as CEO of the USO from 1987 to 1990 and an earlier job as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. In the 1990s, Hagel successfully ran a telecom company as its CEO. Recently, he has taught at Georgetown University and served on Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

In nominating him to be defense chief, Obama described Hagel as “a patriot,” whom US service members see as “one of their own.” Hagel went to college on the GI Bill and has vigorously defended veterans’ benefits in Congress.

Accepting the nomination at a White House press conference, Hagel said he was pleased to have the opportunity to “serve our country again and especially its men and women in uniform and their families … who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war.” Taking care of the troops is “particularly important … as we complete our mission in Afghanistan,” he said.

Obama said his choice of a Republican for the top defense post “represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington.” Hagel, Obama asserted, has “earned the respect of national security and military leaders” for his “independence and commitment to consensus.” Hagel’s “willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom,” represents “exactly the spirit I want on my national security team,” Obama said.

Hagel’s name had been floated around Washington for several weeks as the likely successor to Leon E. Panetta at the Pentagon. Some Republican opponents used that time to paint Hagel as an anti-Israel, Iran-appeasing political hack disloyal to the Republican Party. They justified that view based on Hagel’s record of reversing his early support for the Iraq war, vowing to do all he could to oppose President Bush’s “surge” in that country. He believed the surge would merely prolong the war and increase US casualties.

Hagel also famously made several comments that he was “not the Senator from Israel,” and that “the Jewish lobby” is overly influential in Washington. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on the eve of Hagel’s nomination that his former colleague would be the “most antagonistic” US Defense Secretary Israel would ever have to deal with. Supporters noted, however, that Hagel nearly always voted to support funding for Israel.

Graham also charged that Hagel’s views are “out of the mainstream of thinking … on most issues regarding foreign policy,” but he stopped short of saying he would oppose the nomination. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has voiced his support for Hagel.

A champion of using multilateral sanctions to get Iran to comply with UN directives on its nuclear program, Hagel specifically rejected unilateral sanctions by the US as “counterproductive.” He has consistently voiced warnings that conflict with Iran could be costly in lives and treasure and urged his colleagues to be patient in seeking a diplomatic solution. He has also expressed an openness to negotiate with Hezbollah and Hamas.

At a press conference after Obama’s announcement, White House press secretary Jay Carney acknowledged Hagel’s attitudes and said that he and Obama are “in sync” in their views. Carney also described Hagel as a “staunch” supporter of Israel.

In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star of Lincoln, Neb., published the day after his nomination, Hagel said he’d been unable to counter the “charges, falsehoods, and distortions” of his record until the nomination was officially made. He told the paper that he has always maintained “unequivocal, total support for Israel” and there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one [Senate] vote that matters … hurt Israel.” On some issues relating to Israel, Hagel said he “didn’t sign on” because the measures were “counterproductive and didn’t solve a problem.”

He didn’t support unilateral sanctions on Iran because “when it is us alone, they don’t work and they just isolate the United States.” He added that UN sanctions are having the desired effect, but “when we just decree something, that doesn’t work.” Hagel said he’s consistently pointed out that Iran “is a state sponsor of terrorism.” However, “I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.” Willingness to negotiate with Israel’s enemies isn’t a betrayal, he said.

“Furthering the peace process in the Middle East is in Israel’s interest,” Hagel told the Star.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Hagel would get “a fair hearing” in the Senate.

Many Democrats, too, offered tepid immediate responses to Hagel’s nomination. Some—like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), known for advocating the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, said simply he is anxious to hear what Hagel has to say at his confirmation hearing.

Other Democrats fumed that Obama had, once again, selected a Republican to lead the Pentagon, having held over Robert M. Gates from the Bush Administration. President Bill Clinton also had a Republican defense chief, former Senator William S. Cohen. Self-styled liberal commentator Rachel Maddow said Obama’s choice—given that there’s plenty of “depth” on the Democratic bench—perpetuates “the myth … that only Republicans” can manage defense.

Some Democrats also grumbled that Hagel had made some public anti-gay comments—comments for which Hagel has already apologized. Carney said that Hagel would, “of course, … enforce” all Obama policies, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Obama’s choice, however, offers the President many pluses and few minuses. If Republicans voted against one of their own—a veteran wounded in battle, no less—it would play to Obama’s assertion that the Republican Party has become extremist and cannot tolerate a moderate, even from its own ranks. Voting against Hagel would also be a public sneer at a bipartisan gesture. (Obama’s Cabinet has one other Republican, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood.) Senate Democrats likely would not deny Obama his choice.

Washington observers forecast Hagel would prevail in a close nomination vote, offering Obama a “win” in a fierce battle early in his second term. Moreover, if Obama relents to calls from within his own party to cut defense even more deeply than the plan laid out in the 2011 Budget Control Act—over the objections of Panetta—having a Republican making the case for those cuts makes it harder for Republicans to reject them.

Hagel told the Star he wasn’t looking for a new job and agreed to serve because, he said, “I have great confidence” in Obama, whom he described as a “decent … good man. He and I don’t agree on everything, but he wants people who will be honest with him.”

The New March Madness

In the nether hours of 2012, Congress and the White House hashed out a deal that would stave off sequestration—and mandated, draconian cuts to defense—postponing it until March 1. In the meantime, negotiations continue.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale, in an address to the Brookings Institution in early January, said the deal—called the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012—reduces somewhat the pain that sequestration would inflict. Had the old law kicked in on Jan. 3, the Defense Department would have had to cut $62 billion from its programs, or about 12 percent of its topline. Under the new law, the bill will be $45 billion—if there is a sequestration—amounting to nine percent of the topline, Hale said. The changes stem from modifications in the statute; Congress “changed some of the caps,” Hale explained.

However, “we still don’t want it to happen,” he added, noting that all the warnings about how destructive sequestration would be to the carefully calculated Pentagon budget would still be true, to an only slightly smaller degree. Moreover, DOD would have less than two months to figure out how to scale back more than 2,500 programs. Beyond that, a new fight over the federal debt ceiling is brewing, which would have to be resolved by March 27 or the country will risk going into default—again putting the defense budget at risk.

“It gives a whole new meaning to the term, ‘March Madness,’ and I can’t wait for it to be over,” Hale asserted.

Hale said the sequestration would be somewhat worse than face value because “we have to protect money for combat operations,” which are supposed to be funded increasingly from the base budget rather than separate overseas contingency operations budgets. That will reduce funds for investment accounts, he said.

He also acknowledged that the defense budget request will probably be late this year.

“It will be OMB’s [Office of Management and Budget] call,” Hale noted, but “we would be transmitting data to OMB right now, and we’re not ready to do that.” He couldn’t say how late the budget will be, but it is usually sent to Congress at the end of January.

The Pentagon leadership had no plans to issue guidance for sequestration, he said.

We “want to continue not to take specific steps in anticipation of sequestration” because the department is hoping Congress will avoid it. The threat of the sequester and the historically long continuing resolutions under which the Pentagon has been operating “hog-tie the department” and make planning extremely difficult, Hale said.

He described the overall situation as “a confluence of unfortunate events.” If “we are allowed the authority to make choices” as to what cuts will be made with sequestration, “they’ll probably be investment-heavy in the beginning” and force structure cuts will probably come later.

Panetta: Finishing Old and New Business

The controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the new Defense Secretary overshadowed the looming departure of Leon E. Panetta, who presided over more significant milestones in his 19 months than most who have held the top Pentagon job.

On Panetta’s watch, the US wrapped up its war in Iraq, having brought that conflict, in Panetta’s words, to “an honorable conclusion.” Despite dire prediction that Iraq would instantly become a sectarian free-for-all as soon as the last American left, the Iraqi government has maintained a reasonable semblance of order, and while civil unrest persists and there is still occasional bloodshed, it is nothing like what was expected. Panetta engineered the military exit artfully.

Muammar Qaddafi, a thorn in the side of the US and the West for 40 years, is gone—his regime replaced by one seeking democracy and a departure from radicalism. Panetta took over the Libyan conflict from predecessor Robert M. Gates and provided heavy support to what became an ally-led effort while keeping America’s other two wars from going off the rails.

Left to its own devices, the Pentagon likely never would have come up with its new Pacific strategy and shift toward smaller, higher-quality forces. Interservice politics would have likely delivered a bland, excessively “joint” strategy giving all the branches equal status and importance, instead of emphasizing air and naval capability as the keys to achieving 21st century virtual presence and balancing a rising China. Panetta, in close coordination with the White House, managed an end run around the ground forces, which tried to ignore the fact that their roles—so important in Iraq and Afghanistan—were not the highest priorities in dealing with the long distances and higher-end threats of the Pacific.

It was also Panetta who calmly managed the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, damping the controversy by working closely with Congress—where he had been a nine-term member of the House—and the White House, where he had been chief of staff under President Bill Clinton.

In a press statement regarding his impending departure as defense chief, Panetta said he was pleased to have had a role in “implementing the campaign plan to build an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself by the end of 2014.” He also noted that on his watch, DOD has provided “greater support for our Active, Reserve, and Guard forces, their families, and our wounded warriors.”