Chuck Hagel was sworn in as U.S. defense secretary today, battered politically by a confirmation fight even as he takes on challenges from Pentagon budget cuts to withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Hagel, 66, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, won Senate approval on a 58-41 vote yesterday after months of Republican opposition that began even before President Barack Obama nominated him for the job. Hagel took the oath of office in a private ceremony today at the Pentagon.
“I’m honored to be introduced by anyone,” Hagel told an audience of military chiefs, service secretaries and rank-and-file Defense Department employees, referring to opposition to his nomination. As a former Army sergeant, Hagel said, seeing General Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, sitting in the front row “makes me shake a little.”
While the Pentagon faces budget challenges at home and national security threats around the world, the U.S. “must not lose sight of the possibilities,” Hagel said.
“If there’s one thing that America has stood for more than any one thing, we are a force for good,” Hagel said. “We make mistakes, we have made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes, but we are a force for good.”
After the Senate voted yesterday to confirm Hagel, Obama said in an e-mail that he will “be counting on Chuck’s judgment and counsel as we end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home, stay ready to meet the threats of our time and keep our military the finest fighting force in the world.”
While Obama said that Hagel won “bipartisan confirmation,” only four Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents to back him. The Republicans supporting Hagel were Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Thad Cochran of Mississippi.
“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective in his job,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican leader, said during debate yesterday.
Weeks of criticism over Hagel’s past positions -- from his opposition to the troop surge in Iraq in 2007 to his comments on the influence of what he once called the “Jewish lobby” -- will fade as Hagel tackles the automatic defense spending cuts of $45 billion over seven months that are set to begin on March 1, according to former Defense Secretary William Cohen.
“He’ll have his hands full,” said Cohen, also a former Republican senator who led the Pentagon under a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. In addition to working out of the Pentagon to steep himself in the issues he’ll face, Hagel has been quietly making visits to lawmakers during the weeks his nomination was delayed by opponents, Cohen said.
“Relations are important, and he has been going up to repair the damage done during the confirmation hearing,” Cohen said yesterday in an interview. “It’s a tough job and part of it is to persuade your former colleagues” in Congress.
Hagel also must manage the military and civilian leadership of the Pentagon in an era when defense budgets are likely to shrink, regardless of whether the across-the-board cuts called sequestration stay in place, Cohen said. All that “will create a lot of anxiety and probably some objections” from within the military services, he said.
Hagel’s halting performance in his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing, during which he clashed over the Iraq surge with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and stumbled over U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, may have taken a toll on his image.
Unfavorable opinion about Hagel increased after the hearing, according to polling by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. A survey conducted from Feb. 14-17 found 28 percent of those polled expressed an unfavorable view of Hagel, up from 17 percent a month earlier. In the latest sample, which had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points, Hagel drew a favorable rating of 22 percent.
Hagel probably can recover and move on, said Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The hearings showed Hagel’s capacity to survive “an idiosyncratic process” that was mostly about a split between Republicans in Congress and the Obama administration on foreign policy matters, Miller said.
Hagel made the comment that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress in a book by Miller on Arab-Israeli negotiations. During the confirmation hearing, Hagel said he regretted using the phrase.
Hagel is a “Republican realist” with centrist views on foreign policy that he shares with Obama, Miller said. Hagel’s primary focus as defense chief is likely to be on managing the Pentagon and reining in its budget, Miller said, not the questions of U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran that dominated the confirmation hearing.
“A secretary of defense has enormous discretion over bases, contractors and weapons systems,” Miller said. “If he’s going to reduce the Pentagon’s budget in a significant way, that’s going to be a fight. I don’t see Hagel wrestling with Republicans over questions like Hamas, Hezbollah or even what to do about the Iranian nuclear program.”
In the Obama administration, such decisions are made in the White House, not by Cabinet secretaries, Miller said. “Obama, as the first four years have demonstrated, will make foreign policy,” he said.
Echoing Obama’s foreign policy views, Hagel said today that the U.S. “can’t dictate to the world but we must engage” along with allies. “As great as America is, no nation can do this alone, and we need to continue to build on the strong relationships we have built.”
Instead of letting his tenure as Pentagon chief become a running fight with lawmakers over defense dollars, Hagel should outline a strategy for the U.S. military’s role in the world, said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
“In the end, America needs a new strategy for defense, and the degree to which Secretary of Defense Hagel can get the bureaucracy and the Congress to buy into that -- when so much vested interest lies in the status quo -- will be a serious first-year and an ongoing challenge,” Kay said in an interview.
Hagel’s initial time as defense secretary may have been complicated by the Pentagon’s failure to plan months ago for the automatic spending cuts that were part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a policy research group in Washington.
In September, Ashton Carter, the deputy defense secretary, told military and civilian officials to “continue normal spending operations” without considering the ill effects of automatic reductions.
“They could have begun planning for sequestration long before they did,” Harrison said in an e-mail. “They did not begin planning like we are starting to see now until January.”
In the absence of such steps, military services have taken to warning Congress about halting training, delaying ship deployments, and the Defense Department has said it may have to furlough civilian employees.
One of Hagel’s first tough decisions may be to order the Pentagon to start planning for a smaller budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Harrison said. Obama’s budget proposal will be submitted to Congress sometime in March, according to a defense official with knowledge of the budget process.