Hagel Confirmation Fight Signals Obama Defense Priorities

Former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts as a young enlisted soldier in Vietnam in 1968, shows no sign that he’s cowed by the political battle over his confirmation as defense secretary.

To the contrary, with Hagel’s nomination, President Barack Obama is seizing an opportunity to cement a shift in national security strategy away from military interventionism as the administration faces a tepid economy, a second-term effort to reduce defense spending and a public weary after more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the political attacks on Hagel have largely targeted his views on Iran and Israel, the clashes over his suitability to run the Pentagon open a much weightier debate about America’s military commitments and what he has called a “bloated” defense budget.

“Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has seen a consensus around neo-conservatives on the political right and liberal interventionists on the left, and that all kind of leads to wanting more -- more action in the world, more involvement, more commitments,” said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. “It’s the kind of thing that gets you into Iraq on one hand and a surge into Afghanistan on the other.”

“What Chuck Hagel represents is sort of a return to what was the previous general consensus on foreign policy, which was mainly reflective of a commitment to being a strong, capable nation, but one that acted with restraint,” Kay said in a telephone interview.

Republican Rift

In choosing the 66-year-old Republican, Obama has highlighted the rift between that party’s so-called realists, such as President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Ronald Reagan’s Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, and Hagel’s interventionist-oriented critics, such as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol.

“In his stated positions, Senator Hagel, in my opinion, represents a departure from some long-held positions in the United States, across the parties,” said Steven Bucci, a former military assistant and chief of staff to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the primary advocates of invading Iraq in 2003.

Hagel’s questionable support of Israel, his opposition to some sanctions on Iran and “outreach” to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, Bucci said, “are all departures from what has been conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign policy and security policy.”

‘Worst Nightmare’

“He is very much in favor of further defense cuts,” said Bucci, now director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “He thinks we don’t have the money for these defense programs, which I can understand, but then he says we don’t need them, which I think is a little delusional. The world is more dangerous than it was in 2001 and not less so.”

For such critics, Hagel “is their worst nightmare,” said Richard Armitage, who served in senior national security posts under three Republican presidents. A Hagel-led Pentagon would seem to “disenfranchise their notion that there’s a military solution for every problem,” Armitage said in an interview.

During his 12 years in the Senate, Hagel built a reputation as an independent thinker on foreign policy. He favors international cooperation and coalitions over unilateral U.S. action, and he broke with his party in 2007 over President George W. Bush’s proposed surge of 30,000 troops in Iraq. While Hagel supported the Afghanistan war resolution, he became critical of the prolonged U.S. counterinsurgency and the surge of additional troops there.

‘Primary Lesson’

“Here we are twelve years in Afghanistan, having very significant difficulties on winding that” down, Hagel said in an interview last year for a PBS television series on foreign policy. “Easy to get into war; easy to intervene. Not easy to un-intervene, unwind, or get out of war. I think that’s the primary lesson of the last ten years that all nations are looking at.”

Hagel “clearly represents a shift in that he’s part of the camp of ‘realist Republicans’,” said Dov Zakheim, who was Pentagon comptroller under President George W. Bush. They are “much more cautious about the use of military force and the idea of exporting our idea of democracy to places in the world that have different values and cultural priorities.”

Humanitarian Intervention

Hagel’s views also run contrary to some Democrats who favor American intervention on humanitarian grounds in situations such as Libya and Syria. He has said that while U.S. and European military action successfully toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, that push for regime change now hinders efforts to work with Russia and China to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to avert a war with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Hagel’s wariness of intervention is in line with Obama, who completed a pullout of American forces from Iraq -- drawing criticism from Republicans such as Graham and Arizona Senator John McCain -- and is on track to withdraw all but a training force from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Polling by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, found that, like Hagel, most Americans have become critical of the extended U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, which now has claimed 2,165 American lives.

While a majority favored U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as recently as early 2010, by July 2012 60 percent said the U.S. should not be involved, according to the Quinnipiac polls. Similarly, 63 percent of Americans said the U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to “do something about” Syria, according to a poll last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.

In ‘Mainstream’

Hagel is “right in the mainstream of where the public is on a wide range of issues,” Kay said. “The Washington consensus of wanting to do more and more has slipped out of the mainstream. Chuck Hagel represents a return to fundamental groundings that made America powerful in the first place --ideas that hearken to Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan’s second term and to people like Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft on the Republican side and to Sam Nunn on the Democratic side.”

“His presence I think is forcing a serious reflection on what is the nature of America’s power in the world, and is our presence in the world endless and can we do everything everywhere all the time?” he said.

Iran Question

The most urgent question is whether Obama is prepared to use military force if negotiations fail to persuade Iran to halt some of its nuclear activities. That’s one area where polls show a majority of Americans favor military action.

“Hagel is being attacked for saying the idea of using military power is not a sure thing and should be used as a last resort -- a view shared by many military analysts,” Kay said.

While Hagel supported international sanctions on Iran, critics have cited his opposition to unilateral U.S. sanctions and his concern about the limitations of military action to argue that he may not be willing to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons that would threaten U.S. interests and Israel.

“Whatever you think of the neo-cons, this president is on record as saying that Iran will not get the bomb,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “And it looks increasingly like that is going to require military action. So it doesn’t seem logical to get as secretary of defense somebody who is pretty strongly opposed to that and who is on the margins of congressional opinion.”

‘Jewish Lobby’

Kristol, who’s been outspoken in his opposition to Hagel, said on Fox News on Jan. 6: “I really don’t know why the president wants him except I think he maybe he likes the fact that Chuck Hagel has complained about the power of the Jewish lobby and was one of very few senators to voted against Iran sanctions.”

One of Hagel’s first tasks if confirmed will be to examine ways to reduce defense spending. In an August 2011 interview with the Financial Times, Hagel called the defense budget “bloated” and in need of “a pretty hard re-evaluation.”

Hagel is an “odd choice” for that task given that he lacks much executive experience and may provide little political cover with Republicans, Mandelbaum said in a telephone interview. “The Republicans don’t seem to like him, so on that score, I don’t see what the president gets.”

Under Obama, the Pentagon has embraced $487 billion in cuts from previously planned spending over 10 years. An additional $500 billion in reductions would be imposed over a decade unless Obama and Congress reach agreement by March to avert the automatic cuts known as sequestration.

If Hagel advocates cutting U.S. forces, “he’s going to run into a buzz saw among virtually all Republicans,” said Zakheim, who’s now a scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But if he simply wants to run a more efficient Pentagon, that’s a very different story.”

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