Two-Buck Chuck
Why the defense-slashing Hagel could be Obama’s most momentous nominee to date.

President Barack Obama and former senator Chuck Hagel at the White House, January 10, 2013.


Daniel Foster

It appears as though the Editors of National Review Online — not to mention yours truly — were too hasty in concluding last month that “Chuck Hagel is definitively not the man who should be the next secretary of defense. And considering the problems it will create for the Obama administration should they nominate him, we trust he won’t be.”

Because it now seems clear that Barack Obama will get Chuck Hagel as his next secretary of defense. It’s true that a number of Senate Republicans — including Senators McCain, Graham, Cornyn, Wicker, Vitter, and Cruz — have said they will oppose Hagel, while a number of Democrats, most conspicuously No. 3 Dem Chuck Schumer, have been noncommittal. But no Democrats have said outright they will defy their president on such an important nomination, and Majority Leader Harry Reid has endorsed the nominee, something he would not have done without knowing the temperature of his caucus. The external opposition has been both ardent and effective in securing headlines, but it is relatively narrow in scope. Even the high-firepower group AIPAC — which many thought might lead the charge against Hagel over his views on Israel — has decided to sit this one out.

Things could still change, of course. Confirmation hearings could bring new information to light. Hagel could damage himself in testimony. Or a unified Republican caucus could mount a filibuster. The wild card in the latter option is whether Hagel’s nomination process will occur under a new framework for limiting filibusters that could come out of negotiations between Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The explicit and implicit promises made under such an agreement could determine the feasibility of such a maneuver.

But barring the unexpected, Hagel will succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. And that could prove to be President Obama’s most significant appointment to date.

Why? Consider what Hagel’s nomination signifies. Unlike his predecessor, who called the defense cuts built into the sequester “disastrous,” Hagel thinks they’re A-OK. And that’s precisely why he’s the president’s man. As David Brooks put it, Hagel has been nominated “to supervise the beginning of [a] generation-long process of defense cutbacks,” necessitated both by the president’s ambivalence about American global hegemony and by his preference for butter over guns in our impending debt and entitlement reckonings. Hagel is also functionally neutral in the Arab–Israeli conflict, an avowed opponent of military intervention in Iran, and (after his rebirth as an Iraq War skeptic) a maximally circumspect foreign-policy “realist” who would be more than content to oversee a net U.S. withdrawal from global hotspots (including, but not limited to, Af-Pak).

This constellation of foreign-policy views is not too different from that of candidate Obama, circa 2007, 2008, or even 2009. That such views are nonetheless leftward of the actual policies that have emerged from the Obama administration may sound odd, but in fact reflects how outside the foreign-policy mainstream those views were and to a certain extent still are. Even if the military-industrial complex isn’t the evil conspiracy of caricature, it is nevertheless real, and governed by dynamics that cut across electoral cycles. This is why the civil servants and contractors who populate the foreign-policy and defense bureaucracies, along with their symbiotic appropriators in Congress, often overwhelm the wide-eyed political promises of newly elected executives and why presidents are often more hawkish than they had been as candidates. This all might be chalked up to mere inertia; but there’s also, and more importantly, a bipartisan preponderance of policymakers and policy-influencers — from think tankers to congressmen — who are more bullish on the use of American power, and more dispositionally pro-Israel than is the president.