The president’s choice for the next civilian leader of the U.S. military is curious and troubling.
Obama finds a kinship with former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, his nominee for secretary of defense, but few others in Washington do. Democrats are puzzled that Obama has selected a Republican; Republicans don’t think Hagel is a Republican.
Obama wants to transition the U.S. military to a smaller, less-expensive footprint. He needs a defense secretary who has enough credibility to muster support in Congress for that transition. He also needs a defense secretary who will tell him when the zeal for proposed spending cuts puts national security at risk. Hagel is not that defense secretary.
Hagel has opposed economic sanctions against Iran. He has encouraged engagement with Iran’s leaders, as he has done with the leaders of Syria and North Korea. He has suggested the world could tolerate a nuclear Iran and rely on deterrence, the threat of retaliation, to keep Iran from using its weapons.
In assembling his second-term team President Obama seems to be seeking, first and foremost, a high comfort level for himself. For the good of the nation he should craft — if not a team of rivals — a team that will challenge him. Come the confirmation hearings, the Senate will have sound reason to challenge Chuck Hagel.