|Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary: The Best Conservatives Can Hope For?|
By Ashton Ellis
Wednesday, December 19 2012
This week the White House let the press know that President Barack Obama is considering Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska, to be the next Secretary of Defense. The trial balloon touched off an interesting debate among conservatives and libertarians about whether to support the choice.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is cheering on Obama to pick Hagel because of the Vietnam veteran’s skepticism over foreign interventions, and openness to “paring down” the Pentagon’s budget.
In a speech to the non-partisan Atlantic Council which he currently leads, Hagel argued for more use of so-called “soft power” in foreign relations, such as a greater emphasis on engagement through diplomacy.
Hagel’s principles may make him appealing to the Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party, who would like to see less military involvement in foreign affairs, and a unilateral reduction in federal spending.
But some others on the Right aren’t nearly so excited. The Washington Free Beacon quotes William Kristol of the Weekly Standard as saying, “If Chuck Hagel has his way, Iran will get nuclear weapons and Israel will be thrown under the bus.” Kristol was referencing Hagel’s past statements in favor of unconditional direct negotiations with Iran, and a tougher line on Israel’s relationship with Palestinians.
Kristol and others raise some good points about Hagel that should be examined in more detail. A future Defense Secretary should be made to articulate his understanding of America’s role in the Middle East; especially his stance toward Israel, the United States’ most consistent ally in the region. That’s what Senate confirmation hearings are for. But if nominated, hopefully Hagel will also get a chance to elaborate on a statement he made last year in an interview posted by the Council on Foreign Relations:
“Our Defense Department budget, it is not a jobs program. It’s not an economic development program for my state or any district.”
Hagel is right on this point. National defense spending should be premised on securing Americans’ safety, not necessarily on creating American jobs. Defense spending is still the government spending taxpayer money, so if the primary justification for a Pentagon budget item is that it creates jobs or otherwise economically stimulates a specific region or industry, fiscal conservatives should be wary.
Newt Gingrich is fond of saying that there’s enough waste and missed efficiencies in the Pentagon’s budget to turn it into a “Triangle” without jeopardizing America’s security posture. Whether the real shape is a triangle or a square, it’s likely that any major deal on long-term spending reforms will have to include some reduced share of federal tax receipts going to the Defense Department.
The question is how much. During his first term, President Obama sliced $500 billion out of the military’s budget. If the federal government goes over the fiscal cliff this January, the automatic spending cuts poised to hit the Defense Department are estimated to total another $500 billion. While $1 trillion in cuts in less than four years would certainly trim at least one of the Pentagon’s corners, it’s hard to imagine that there is $1 trillion in wasteful or inefficient spending to pare down in such a short timeframe.
All of which brings us back to a possible Hagel nomination. Conservatives who resist the idea of Hagel as Defense Secretary might want to consider what scuttling his nomination would produce in the way of an alternative. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice’s proposed nomination to be the new Secretary of State crashed on the shoals of the Benghazi scandal. Her replacement might be Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. If Hagel goes down without a chance at confirmation hearings, is it likely President Obama will nominate someone more conservative?
It may be more prudent to let the Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee – John McCain (R-AZ) chief among them – put Hagel on the record about his principles as Defense Secretary. While conservatives might not like everything he says, it’s almost certain that another nominee would be even worse.
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