Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings as secretary of Defense starting today promise to be the most riveting of any of President Obama's second-term nominations. The former GOP senator from Nebraska and Vietnam War veteran will surely come under fire from some committee members over his provocative views on a variety of areas.
Whether a contrarian-type thinker like Hagel can be highly effective at the Pentagon is partly a matter of timing. For a new administration, needing a steady and cautious hand on the tiller, it might not be best.
But now that President Obama is in his second term, he knows his own mind on many matters, and John Kerry, as secretary of State, represents a careful and pragmatic voice on foreign policy, too. So Hagel's willingness to challenge others' assumptions might not be so undesirable. Indeed, on some issues, it could be productive.
Much of the controversy over Hagel has concerned his views on key countries such as Israel, Iran and Iraq. Here's what he has said and why it should not derail his confirmation:
On Israel, Hagel has criticized aspects of Israeli policy, including its reticence in engaging with Palestinians. In 2006, he said, "Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships." Many others in the foreign policy community have expressed similar concerns. It is highly doubtful that Hagel will express any hesitancy about helping Israel defend itself.
On Iraq, Hagel called the 2007 U.S. troop surge "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder ... since Vietnam." But even some of us who came to defend that policy strongly had initial doubt. In any event, U.S. troops are now home from Iraq.
On Iran, the nominee has expressed doubts over possible U.S. airstrikes even as Tehran continues its march toward a nuclear weapons capability. But the president has declared repeatedly his firm view that Iran must not be allowed a nuclear weapon.
In this regard, Hagel's skepticism about a hard line could be a welcome antidote to a strong consensus leaning toward the use of force in coming months, a decision that would be fraught with danger.
On Afghanistan, it is important that Hagel show an openmindedness about our policy. He has been a skeptic, but that is OK as long as Hagel understands where we are in the campaign plan, and recommends any major changes with utmost care.
Much progress has been made, and Afghans have been counting on a gradual and careful U.S. transition out of the combat mission. Without delicate handling, the Afghan army and police could collapse, and next year's Afghan presidential elections could deteriorate into a sectarian and tribal competition. That would risk future stability and increase the likelihood of an al-Qaeda return.
The U.S. defense budget is the biggest issue of all for Hagel. If confirmed, he will step into a situation where, failing new congressional action, the Pentagon will have to eliminate almost 10% in its current year budget under the automatic spending cuts due March 1.
Hagel has said that the Defense Department "in many ways has been bloated. ... I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down." Yet one round of defense cuts has already been agreed upon. The cuts are somewhere between $350 billion and $487 billion over the next 10 years, as part of the deal worked out between Obama and Congress back in 2011.
But on March 1, if no further action happens, another $500 billion will be taken out of its 10-year plan. These cuts are in addition to the more dramatic reductions in war costs underway. Some have noted that annual defense spending would still slightly exceed the Cold War average even after such reductions. But the automatic cuts are not wise, and I hope Hagel will say so.
To be sure, additional Pentagon budget cuts of $100 billion to $200 billion over the next decade are feasible as part of a broader deficit deal. But I see no way to make $500 billion more in cuts without undermining our defense strategy.
Hagel can bring some fresh thinking to the budget process, and if he shows flexibility with some of his past views during the hearings, there's no reason he won't win confirmation.