If you had buttonholed me in the Senate men’s room circa 2003 and told me that a decade hence Joe Biden would be America’s vice president, John Kerry secretary of state, and Chuck Hagel secretary of defense, I’d have laughed and waited for the punch line: The Leahy administration? President Lautenberg? Celebrate lack of diversity! But even in the republic’s descent into a Blowhardocracy staffed by a Zombie House of Lords, there are distinctions to be drawn. Senator Kerry having been reliably wrong on every foreign-policy issue of the last 40 years, it would seem likely that at this stage in his life he will be content merely to be in office, jetting hither and yon boring the pants off whichever presidents and prime ministers are foolish enough to grant him an audience. Beyond the photo-ops, the world will drift on toward the post-American era: Beijing will carry on gobbling up resources around the planet, Czar Putin will flex his moobs across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Arab Spring “democracies” will see impressive growth in the critical clitoridectomy sector of the economy, Iran will go nuclear, and John Kerry will go to black-tie banquets in Europe. But Chuck Hagel is a different kettle of senatorial huffenpuffer. And not because of what appears to be a certain antipathy toward Jews and gays. That would be awkward at the Tony Awards, but at the Arab League the post-summit locker-room schmoozing should be a breeze. Since his celebrated “evolution” on marriage last year, President Obama is famously partial to one of those constituencies, so presumably he didn’t nominate an obscure forgotten senator because of his fascinating insights into the appropriate level of “obviousness” the differently oriented should adopt. So why Hagel? Why now?
My comrade Jonah Goldberg says this nomination is a “petty pick” made by Obama “out of spite.” I’m not so sure. If the signature accomplishment of the president’s first term was Obamacare (I’m using “signature accomplishment” in the Washington sense of “ruinously expensive bureaucratic sinkhole”), what would he be looking to pull off in his second (aside from the repeal of the 22nd Amendment)? Hagel isn’t being nominated to the Department of Zionist and Homosexual Regulatory Oversight but to the Department of Defense. Which he calls “bloated.”
“The Pentagon,” he said a year ago, “needs to be pared down.” Unlike the current secretary, Leon Panetta, who’s strongly opposed to the mandated “sequestration” cuts to the defense budget, Hagel thinks they’re merely a good start.
That’s why Obama’s offered him the gig. Because Obamacare at home leads inevitably to Obamacuts abroad. In that sense, America will be doing no more than following the same glum trajectory of every other great power in the postwar era. I feel only a wee bit sheepish about quoting my book After America two weeks running, since it’s hardly my fault Obama’s using it as the operating manual for his second term (I may sue for breach of copyright and retire to Tahiti). At any rate, somewhere around Chapter Five, I suggest that, having succeeded Britain as the dominant power, America may follow the old country in decline, too:
“In what other ways might the mighty eagle emulate the tattered old lion? First comes reorientation, and the shrinking of the horizon. After empire, Britain turned inward: Between 1951 and 1997 the proportion of government expenditure on defense fell from 24 percent to seven, while the proportion on health and welfare rose from 22 percent to 53. And that’s before New Labour came along to widen the gap further.
“Those British numbers are a bald statement of reality: You can have Euro-sized entitlements or a global military, but not both. What’s easier to do if you’re a democratic government that’s made promises it can’t afford — cut back on nanny-state lollipops, or shrug off thankless military commitments for which the electorate has minimal appetite?”
Democrats put it slightly differently: In 2004 John Kerry demanded to know why we were building firehouses in Iraq but closing them in America (the municipal fire department apparently falling, like everything else, under the federal government). Barack Obama prefers to say that it’s time for the United States to do some nation-building at home — the pilot program in Afghanistan having worked out so well. Either line will do, and, like Britain’s inverted budget priorities, both implicitly acknowledge that a military-industrial complex and a dependency-bureaucrat complex are incompatible. And that’s before you factor in Washington-size borrowing, under which, within this decade, the interest payments on the debt will be covering the entire cost of the Chinese military. America can fund the Pentagon or the People’s Liberation Army, but not both, not for long. Having gotten the citizenry to accept a supersized welfare bureaucracy, Obama reasonably enough figures he can just as easily get them used to a shrunken American presence in the wider world.
So the president is looking for his equivalent of Denis Healey, the Labour cabinet minister who in the 1968 defense review announced an all but total withdrawal of British forces from “east of Suez” — a phrase that in the imperial imagination is less geographic than psychological.
Kipling’s English Tommy on the road to Mandalay: “Ship me somewheres east of Suez . . . ” And then a cheeseparing defense minister says: No, we won’t. Not now, not ever again. It’s over.
Who would you hire for the Pentagon’s east-of-Suez moment? According to the Washington Post, Obama picked Hagel to “bridge the partisan divide.”
Even for the court eunuchs of the palace media, that must be hard to type with a straight face: He seems to be all but entirely loathed by his own party. Nevertheless, he is technically a Republican, not to mention a bona fide war hero. Only Nixon can go to China, and only a pro-life, pro-gun, climate-denialist, homophobic, Strom Thurmond–loving, medal-draped Republican can go to the Pentagon and tell them to start clearing out their desks. Obama has picked a guy whose rhetoric is more anti-Pentagon than his own, and who, unlike most of the cabinet senators, has a record of executive experience that suggests he may well live up to it.
If he pulls it off, it’ll be a big part of Obama’s legacy. And, if he doesn’t, I’m sure the media will be happy to remind everyone that, oh well, Hagel was a Republican.
But beyond the politics is a real question. He’s not wrong to raise the question of Pentagon “bloat.” The United States has the most lavishly funded military on the planet, and what does it buy you? In the Hindu Kush, we’re taking twelve years to lose to goatherds with fertilizer.
Something is wrong with this picture. Indeed, something is badly wrong with the American way of war. And no one could seriously argue that, in the latest in the grim two-thirds-of-a-century roll call of America’s un-won wars, the problem is a lack of money or resources. Given its track record, why shouldn’t the Pentagon get a top-to-toe overhaul — or at least a cost-benefit analysis?
Just to be clear: I disagree with Hagel on Israel, on Iran, and on most everything else. But my colleagues on the right are in denial if they don’t think there are some very basic questions that need to be asked about the too-big-to-fail Department of Defense. Obama would like the U.S. military to do less. Some of us would like it to do more with less — more nimbly, more artfully. But, if the national-security establishment won’t acknowledge there’s even a problem, they’re unlikely to like the solutions imposed by others. “Petty” and “spiteful”? No. Obamacare’s other shoe.