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.