As the attacks on Chuck Hagel lose traction , scrutiny of Obama’s pick for secretary of defense may shift more directly to the question of how he will handle military spending. Hagel’s critics and supporters alike seem convinced  that he will lay into the defense budget with a carving knife. But is there a basis for that assumption?
The idea that Hagel would push for a leaner defense DoD comes mainly from a 2011 interview in which he called the Department “bloated,” and went on to say, “I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” In a separate statement that year at the Council on Foreign Relations he criticized  members of Congress for throwing money at wasteful defense projects within their districts. “Our Defense Department budget, it is not a jobs program,” he said. “It’s not an economic development program for my state or any district.”
Hagel is a fiscal conservative and a realist, so it makes sense that he would emphasize efficiency in the DoD while pursuing diplomatic alternatives to the kind of costly overseas operations that defined the last decade. He demonstrated his financial management acumen when he dragged the United Service Organization back from the brink of bankruptcy during his tenure as President and CEO, and he was successful in the private sector.
“You’ve got a lot of power, if you’re willing to exert it,” says Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense under Reagan and now of the Center for American Progress, about the role of defense secretary. “The question is, does Hagel want to? When you go into the agency they expect you to be their spokesman and to take care of them. It’s easy to fall into that trap.” Even Leon Panetta, who as director of the House Budget Committee was notorious for ruthlessly enforcing fiscal discipline, turned an abrupt about-face  when he took over at the Pentagon. Korb thinks Hagel could be an exception, particularly given his distinguished military record. “He’s got management experience, political experience, and not only courage on the battlefield but also bureaucratic courage,” he says.
Hagel garnered a reputation as an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration during his two terms in the senate, and supporters have taken that as an indication of his ability to stand up to the defense lobby and the services themselves. Hagel made headlines in 2007 when he turned  against his party in support of Democratic legislation tying funding for the Iraq war to a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. He publicly criticized the Bush Administration over the Patriot Act and NSA wiretapping. He has repeatedly called for more robust diplomatic efforts ahead of sanctions and military intervention, and he has endorsed a proposal  put forward by an advocacy group that calls for shrinking the US’s nuclear arsenal by 80 percent, a move the group says would trim $100 billion from the defense budget.
But, cautions Winslow Wheeler of the Project On Government Oversight, who worked previously on national security issues in the Government Accountability Office, there is “no precedent” for the idea that Hagel will push for big cuts at the Pentagon if he is confirmed. Hagel’s willingness to break with his party during the Iraq war was noteworthy, but he did not step beyond rhetorical opposition. Not once has Hagel voted to reject a defense budget. While he balked at extending the wiretap provision in the Patriot Act in 2005, he voted to reauthorize the rest of the bill the next year. He voted in favor of the joint resolution authorizing the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001, and for the use of military force in Iraq in 2002, and he continued to approve funding for those wars even after he began to criticize the Bush Administration for its policies.
“We should regard his statement about bloat as rhetoric, and that leads me to conclusion that he will do as he’s told on spending levels, and that will be whatever the President works out with Republicans on Capitol Hill,” says Wheeler.
Hagel was hardly a hardliner on defense spending early in his senate career. In 2001 Hagel made a statement in support of Donald Rumsfeld’s nomination to head the DoD in which he said, “shortchanging our military budget” has put US military supremacy “in jeopardy.” During a debate over the Defense Authorization Act of 1999, Hagel decried  “the 14th consecutive year of decline in defense spending.” He went on:
We need to increase spending for our Defense Department... The end of the cold war has reduced some threat. But now is no time to not only withdraw American leadership but to withdraw the commitment to our Armed Forces. Our armed services are the capability that we are relying on to protect our national interests, our role in the world, to guarantee our foreign policy. That will not be done by hollowing out our military.
Back in 1997, Hagel and six other Republican freshmen wrote a letter to defense secretary William Cohen urging him to “speak forcefully and honestly about our defense needs. If more resources are needed than have been currently budgeted, say so. We would expect to support such a properly justified request.”
The evolution of Hagel’s view on the military budget reflects just how bloated it has become in the post 9/11 era, but neither his recent statements, his record, nor his foreign policy ideology indicate that he’ll discipline the DoD in radical ways.
“The defense budget is going to be cut,” says Lawrence Korb, regardless of who controls the Pentagon. Automatic spending reductions enshrined in the debt ceiling deal are set to kick in unless Congress comes up with an alternative deficit-reduction plan by March. These, along with other planned cuts, would shrink the defense budget, but only back to its level in 2007—at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the costly military ventures of the past decade drawing to a close, it’s hardly a radical idea to cut spending to this extent. In fact, the drop-off in military spending caused by sequestration would be less than the drawdown after the Vietnam, Korean, and Cold wars, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Hagel opposes the automatic cuts.
Andrew Bacevich, a military and foreign policy expert, says the question to ask in light of Hagel’s nomination is what kind of reform at the Defense Department would be meaningful. “What does the US military exist to do in a post-Iraq and Afghanistan era? What does it look like? The redesigned military is going to have to get by with fewer resources. I don’t see anybody in the political sphere taking it on, but like it or not that is going to be Hagel’s mission,” says Bacevich. Hagel’s combat experience and his history of advocacy for service members could shape the decisions he makes in allocating resources, while giving him the political capital for reform. Winslow Wheeler says that Hagel could leverage his experience in order to re-calibrate the pay and benefits system. But at this point, it’s all speculation.
“We read his Vietnam experience and his turn against Iraq as suggestive of somebody who doesn’t have much of an appetite for intervention with ground forces, but whether or not that’s an accurate reading remains to be seen,” says Bacevich, who sees no evidence that Hagel would actively and aggressively pursue budget cuts. “The notion he’s out of the mainstream is kind of silly. There are going to be cuts one way or another, and as a practical matter the Pentagon is going to have to get by with fewer resources. Maybe, if Governor Romney had been elected that would not be the case, but he didn’t and we have trillion dollar deficits.”
One sure bet is that the defense lobby, Congress, and the military itself will fight tooth and nail against whomever assumes the task of bringing the budget in line with reality. Hagel’s willingness to defy these powerful interests is mostly unproven. His approach will also be influence by the size of the President’s appetite for a fight. Ultimately, the hubbub about Hagel reveals much less about the nominee than it does about the normalization of the extreme belief that current levels of military spending must continue ad nauseum.
Hagel himself offers a prescient warning about the strength of military interests in his book America: Our Next Chapter. “This kind of immense concentration of power,” he wrote, “is not a natural ally with, nor conducive to, accountability.” And Hagel hasn’t yet made a single promise.