Last week’s Senate confirmation hearing on former Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense was contentious and nasty. Hagel almost certainly will be confirmed. But he was badly battered in the process.
His former colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain bullied Hagel on the viability of the surge in Iraq. Lindsay Graham was furious over Hagel’s assertion of intimidation of Congress by the “Jewish lobby” and demanded the name of a singe senator who succumbed to that pressure. And rookie Senator Ted Cruz, after a full four weeks in office, charged Hagel with consorting with a former and controversial U.S. ambassador Hagel had not seen in years. Wow!
The good news is that the Armed Services Committee will take some time to review this nomination. Thus, Hagel has a few weeks to recover from his political wounds (that probably deserve a third Purple Heart) and ready himself for his new duties. In full disclosure, the senator and I have been good friends and colleagues for many years.
How might Senator Hagel use this lull? In written responses to policy questions posed before the hearing, Hagel listed his top priorities as ensuring stability in Afghanistan post pull out; maintaining our technological edge; and supporting people. I would suggest a different set and ordering of priorities.
The highest priority must be people. After a dozen years of war; extraordinary strain on personnel and families; the repetition and intensity of extended periods in combat; and many other factors, people require more than lip service. That no one currently occupies the Pentagon’s undersecretary job for personnel is a further complication. Hagel must take a hard look across all personnel policies and adjust where adjustment is sorely needed as a first order of business.
Next, he must implement and refine the President’s “strategic pivot to Asia,” sensibly renamed by the Pentagon as rebalancing. Unfortunately, the announcement of that strategy offended, frightened or angered most countries from the Atlantic approaches to Europe to the Bering Sea in the far Pacific. This will take nuance, sophistication and imagination.
His final top priority is dealing not with so-called financial austerity but more likely with a budget implosion. If sequester goes through, this year the Pentagon will take a further $43 billion reduction. As the fiscal year is half over, those cuts must be taken in six not twelve months magnifying the potential damage. The cuts can be taken PROVIDED the Pentagon has the flexibility to manage them. The law states cuts must be made “evenly” meaning equally. That will be a disaster. So Hagel must get Congress to redefine that requirement. And he must be prepared to deal with even greater cuts that are certain to be forthcoming as long as debts and deficits loom so large. No one in the Pentagon has dealt with down sizing for a very long time further hindering the process.
Hagel should also engage his considerable intellect and imagination for creative solutions to many challenges. For example, Hagel was constantly reminded by senators to preserve the “defense industrial base,” namely the capacity to arm our military with advanced weapons systems. This is a concept from the 19th century. It is not ships, aircraft or drones that matter. What we put in them does. What is needed is a defense “intellectual property” base and a strategy of regeneration and reconstitution wherein we pay to keep the ability to rebuild these capacities when and if needed.
Hagel will also find himself in a protective “bubble” in the Pentagon with everyone wishing to do his bidding from providing advice to Advil. While he has outside groups for counsel, he needs a “no man” or court jester not bound to the Pentagon and capable of giving him what John McCain calls “straight talk.” And Hagel needs to realize that he is no longer a senator and words count. Every word he utters will be parsed by subordinates in ways he may not anticipate or approve.
President Barack Obama’s appointments of Hagel and John Kerry, along with Vice President Joe Biden, could be transformational if and only if they can bond. In considering that bond, Hagel would do well to re-read two books: H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty and the late Ambassador Robert Komer’s Bureaucracy Does its Thing, both about Vietnam.
McMasters, now an Army Major General wrote about the period 1963-65 arguing that arrogance, ideology and fear of telling the truth turned Vietnam into a quagmire. Komer showed how bureaucracies, no matter how well meaning, can corrupt. Hagel’s own Vietnam experience reinforces both warnings. The challenge will be to turn one of the world’s biggest bureaucracies into a force for good and not advancing its parochial interests.
We wish him Godspeed!