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Chuck Hagel: The Invisible Man

It’s been a year since former Republican senator Chuck Hagel emerged from one of the most grueling and cringe-worthy nomination hearings in recent history with the confirmed title of secretary of defense.

Since then, his most vocal critics—all from his own party—have apparently moved on, leaving Hagel to steer the massive military industrial complex through its first war drawdown in more than 20 years. More urgently, he’s had to navigate the shoals of party politics, including a dysfunctional budget sequester and shutdown of the federal government. He’s also implementing unprecedented policies extending benefits [1] for same sex couples in the military. He faces an evolving sexual assault crisis that touches both enlisted and officer ranks [2], and is currently responding to two potentially explosive corruption scandals unfolding simultaneously in the Air Force [3] and Navy [4].

At a time when war overseas finally appears to be winding down, Hagel’s theater of operations is now largely domestic and politically charged. So how is Hagel, who entered this sphere under doubts as to his executive experience and with a widely disparaged confirmation performance, doing thus far?

The answer, of course, depends on who you talk to in Washington, but the general consensus falls into three broad categories: 1) he isn’t doing enough to increase military spending, 2) he isn’t doing enough to reduce military spending, and 3) Hagel who? He blends right into the White House wallpaper.


This is still a far cry from the way Sen. Ted Cruz, representing hardline war hawks in the GOP, portrayed Hagel in last winter’s senate hearings. He accused Hagel, a two-time Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War, of every foreign policy transgression imaginable, including a fondness for anti-American terrorists and dictators. Not only that—Cruz came perilously close to calling Hagel anti-Semitic.

Criticized roundly for not defending himself, Hagel was mocked by detractors for looking sallow and cowed, but was nonetheless confirmed in a 58-41 vote. A loyal Republican for decades, Hagel received only four GOP votes: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Mike Johanns from his home state of Nebraska.

Hagel’s sin: questioning President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, especially at a time when the GOP’s duty to message outweighed duty to conscience. In an interview [5] with TAC in 2007, Hagel was candid in his disappointment with how the war was handled, including the so-called “surge” led by then Gen. David Petraeus. His hoped-for run for president never transpired, and party masters never forgot. He is forever an “isolationist” and a turncoat, Barack Obama’s “man” in today’s right wing parlance.

Upon Hagel’s confirmation, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL.), whose southern drawl was heard going up one side of Hagel and down the other during hearings, said simply, “I think he’s going to have to prove to the American people and the Congress that he can manage [the Defense Department], that he can efficiently handle the spending squeeze that he’s going to face.”

TAC thought it might be interesting to discover how Sessions feels about Hagel’s first year as secretary of defense, but his office did not return our call. Nor did Sen. Cruz. We asked Sen. Paul if he might weigh in, since he was one of the few Republicans to give Hagel a chance, but his office finally responded to say he was “unavailable for comment.”

Reaching out to defense folks at the Heritage Foundation, which opposed Hagel’s nomination, elicited comments about his lack of executive experience and luster. They said he has not defended the military enough from the Obama administration’s “slash and burn” inclinations. “He’s been more than the ultimate loyal soldier,” said James Carafano, defense policy scholar at the Heritage Foundation. “The problem is the president is not a good steward of the defense department and Hagel reflects that.”

“If I were to give him a grade it would be a low ‘C’,” said Steve Bucci, a Heritage expert on military issues. “He really hasn’t done much to encourage the readiness and preparedness of our armed forces,” and hasn’t defended the budget voraciously enough.

Some Washington observers suggest the hearings were so detrimental to Hagel, he’s kept his head down ever since. Others have been more positive, at least when asked: “I think the most important thing is he has risen above that horrible confirmation,” and hasn’t held grudges against those congressmen who flayed him in public, said Larry Korb, who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. “Given the messes he’s had to handle, I think he’s done a remarkable job.” Korb said everyone recognizes that reforms are necessary, and Hagel’s incremental moves toward peacetime levels are striking the right balance.

But the lack of a grand initiative or strategy is interpreted as inaction, it would seem, and pleases no one in the ongoing battle over military cuts. A quick Google search reveals that the press does not consider Hagel a newsmaker—not one profile written since those awkward days in February, save for a lengthy piece by Gordon Lubold in Foreign Policy [6] last month, ironically entitled The Pentagon’s Invisible Man. Lubold sketches an overall sympathetic portrait, but points out early on,

…Hagel has made few daring moves. He hasn’t yet driven a pointed agenda, fired any poor-performing generals, or sent clear signals about how he’ll put his personal stamp on a job he seemed to want but many believe he has yet to own.

Michael Cohen, a fellow at the Century Foundation, pointed out that Hagel (despite all the teeth-gnashing about his world-view) has been absent from the foreign policy landscape as well: “I didn’t see him prominent in the Syria debate—(Secretary of Defense John) Kerry was much more involved in that process.” On Israel and Iran, it’s all about diplomacy, and “Kerry is moving that ball forward” while Hagel deals with budget crises at home.

“There is no evidence that I can see that [Hagel] is driving the process in terms of where the foreign policy is going,” he said. “It just goes to show how stupid all those criticisms were.”

Hagel came into office amidst plans instigated by his predecessor, Leon Panetta, which decreased projected growth of the DoD budget by $1 trillion over the next decade. The defense establishment was preparing for a fight over that diminishing trough when sequester hit, resulting in another $37 billion cut in 2013 defense spending. Hagel was forced to furlough his civilian employees, but got the total unpaid workdays cut from 11 to six by August. Later, he made sure his civilian force didn’t lose pay during the October government shutdown.

But putting out fires (no matter how large) does not necessarily make a strong reputation. As Lubold pointed out, Hagel has not been overly ambitious: “Just this month he announced details of cuts to headquarters personnel, but its centerpiece was only a decrease of 200 people— over five years—an underwhelming cut given popular perceptions of a bloated Pentagon bureaucracy.”

No surprise, then, that spending watchdogs and foreign policy realists [7] who were tentatively elated with Hagel’s appointment last year are at a loss for comment today. “I’m not sure I have anything interesting to say. He hasn’t really made his presence felt in any real way that I can see,” Danielle Brian, head of the Project on Government Oversight, tells TAC.

“My view is that—much like [former Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates—Hagel has been preoccupied with politics and war and has not imposed strong direction on the procurement side, or indeed on force structure plans,” said Bill Sweetman, senior international defense editor for Aviation Week, in an email. “A SecDef could get away with this in fat years, or in long-ago times when service secretaries ran procurement, but no longer.”

These are the elephants in the room. Reformers say troop reductions are essential, as are adjustments to healthcare and retirement programs. But we saw how difficult this is to procure, politically, when a one percent cut to pension cost of living increases was spurned by the veterans’ lobby this month and promptly returned to the budget [8]. There’s also the massive procurement system, which everyone agrees is a drain on the taxpayer, yet filled with sacred cows of every size and color. Critics wonder if Hagel is deferring too much to service chiefs, who protect their turf rather than making painful decisions.

Gordon Adams, a former executive in the Office of Budget and Management under President Bill Clinton, gives Hagel an “incomplete” on this score: “The true test of his budget and stewardship is next month, when the 2015 budget is released,” he said. “And there is not much we know about that, just bits and pieces.”  He said Hagel has been working within Panetta’s 2014 budget proposal framework, which was finally passed by congress [9] and signed by Obama on January 17. It’s $39 billion below what the administration wanted, but as observers point out [10], it avoids further sequester cuts, and Congress padded an $85 billion overseas contingency account with their usual earmarks anyway.

According to a recent report [11], Hagel’s new budget, due in February, would slash the Army by 100,000 soldiers, to a force of 420,000. This conflicts directly with what Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno says is an acceptable readiness level. Adams said Hagel should get points for resisting Odierno and moving numbers toward a peacetime posture. “It says some tough calls are being made here.”

But Hagel still needs to tackle the “back office,” about 1.8 million uniformed staff, civilian employees, and contractors supporting the DoD universe: “(Hagel) has barely stepped up to this so far,” said Adams. “Will he streamline the building? I am not yet confident that he will.” Adams did not write off the year-old defense secretary entirely: “I’m sympathetic, his learning curve is steep. As a senator, he didn’t have the hands-on, lengthy experience he would have had coming off the Armed Services Committee—he was on the Foreign Affairs Committee. For me, the jury is still out.”

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Chuck Hagel: The Invisible Man"

#1 Comment By Puller58 On January 23, 2014 @ 7:35 am

While the confirmation might get blamed for Hagel’s timidity, I tend to think he’s just like most people who are part of the Establishment. He does what is expected to protect the status quo favored by the donor class.

#2 Comment By Philip Giraldi On January 23, 2014 @ 8:43 am

Great article Kelley! Hagel reminds me a bit of the expectations we Virginians had regarding Jim Webb. Once elected, he was active on veterans’ issues but did little else. Somehow the electoral/nomination process seems to burn them out before they actually take office.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 23, 2014 @ 9:13 am

I like Sec Hagel.

After reading this article I took a look at the Dept of defense website. In years past the images were of the Secretary and staff and other military personnel — interesting. I don’t recall seeing an image of the CEO.

I think it was a mistake to work for the current wh occupant a huge mistake. Given his experience to operate in a lax environment when given the circumstances lax is the last thing one needs. But maybe that is to his liking. Though I think he was selected as more window dressing – hence why we don’t see more of him making the case for mil use in the conflicts of the CEO’s choosing. Given his position on Iraq, it’s hard to imagine he was all that enthusiastic about military action in Syria or anywhere else l’est some clear threat to the US or US interests.

I was a skeptical of the armed forces numbers in the article and was unable to find them on the site — though I am sure they are there somewhere.

#4 Comment By arrScott On January 23, 2014 @ 9:35 am

As something of a limited-government traditionalist, I’m thrilled to see the secretary of defense serving in a more administrative, rather than global policymaking, role. Now if only we could get more of America’s on-the-ground diplomacy back into the hands of the Department of State, rather than our regional military commands. Also, how about reverting the name of the department and the secretary from “Defense” to “War” to remind everyone that the Constitution envisions it as a “break glass in case of emergency” function of the government, not the primary day-to-day organ of the executive.

#5 Comment By SDS On January 23, 2014 @ 10:01 am

Are there REALLY defense “scholars” and “experts” at Heritage? It would seem questionable at best….
However; SecDef in a time of drawdown is a thankless job; and as he works at the pleasure of the President; what can he do that would make either his own party or those wanting radical change (read cuts) happy? The most he can do is steer the massive bureaucracy in a better direction…and try to convince some in Congress that it’s the right direction; when asked.

#6 Comment By Silhouette On January 23, 2014 @ 10:35 am

Hagel should be given at least some credit for what hasn’t happened, and for helping to consolidate the growing national consensus against military adventures.

He is obliged to end the sexual assault epidemic in the military, which is a disgrace to American manhood. It’s difficult to imagine a bigger waste of taxpayer time or money than for the Secretary of Defense to be concerning himself with ‘same sex partner benefits’.

#7 Comment By Woody Long On January 23, 2014 @ 11:27 am

Most here in Nebraska are embarrassed we produced such an idiot. While in his early days he seemed good but he has turned out to be yet another hidden scandal victim, meaning people have dirt on him so he has to be a puppet now to or else risk an embarrassing reputation meltdown.

#8 Comment By collin On January 23, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

In all reality, it is really hard to the Sec. Of Defense in drawdowns and the President is avoiding wars. (Quick name Clinton’s Sec of Def vs. Sceretary of States) It is evident that Obama’s second foreign policy is led by John Kerry as opposed to his early first term where Obama depended a lot more on the military.

In many ways, I believe history will judge Obama’s Presidency the same way as Hagel description here. He had too many messes to clean up too effective.

#9 Comment By James Canning On January 23, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

Let’s hope Hagel can help to achieve a significant reduction in the absurdly high level of “defence” spending by the US since “9/11”.

I continue to think the “surge” in Iraq was a mistake and that the policies called for by the Iraq Study Group should have been adopted.

#10 Comment By Michael N Moore On January 23, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

Hegal’s accomplishment is returning foreign policy to the State Department. He handed the ball to Kerry and Kerry has run with it.

This was a badly needed reform. Our diplomats are now back in business.

#11 Comment By Marc L. On January 23, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

Anybody seen Chuck lately? He must be planning a revolutionary new Peace-approach to our multiple problems of today pondering about it in his cellar….give him some more time, folks!

@Woody Long – “Most here in Nebraska are embarrassed we produced such an idiot.”….You mean your jewish AIPAC affiliated Nebraska constituency consisting of 6 members..? Tell those 2 dissidents my regards!

#12 Comment By david helveticka On January 23, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

I was born in Nebraska, and I’m proud of Chuck Hagel…it’s Hagel’s time—we need foreign policy REALISTS, not warmongering pseudo-conservatives, If we are in such economic trouble, than it ought to be obvious to everybody that we can’t afford to garrison the whole world anymore.

#13 Comment By david helveticka On January 23, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

As for the crisis of sexual assaults and out-of-wedlock babies, it wasn’t Hagel that put Gays and Women in the military, and put them in daily contact with each other. What do you expect when you put gays and women in the military…big mistake, and it’s going to cost the military in effectiveness as well as money.

#14 Comment By Richard Wagner On January 23, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

I think he’s handling spending cuts very effectively. If we doubled the military budget, and then cut 2%, the “Heritage Foundation” would scream about “crippling defense cuts”! But in reality, we are making modest cuts after years of substantial budget busting increases. I wish, however, that Hagel were more involved in our negotiations with Iran, and would get more involved in resolving these scandals, and disciplining where it is due.

#15 Comment By icarusr On January 24, 2014 @ 10:42 am

“As for the crisis of sexual assaults and out-of-wedlock babies, it wasn’t Hagel that put Gays and Women in the military, and put them in daily contact with each other.”

Out of curiosity, how do gays in the military lead to sexual assault on women? Are you suggesting – this is the only thing I can think of – that by having to serve alongside gay men, straight men have to somehow prove their manhood by raping women? Or that men, working alongside women, cannot ever control themselves and have to either rape them or impregnate them? One can only pity the poor American soldier he-man, if you are right – can’t control hisself from them thar Delilahs.

#16 Comment By Marc L. On January 24, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

@Michael N Moore – Very good point! Haven’t seen such an active US foreign secretary in a long time!

@Richard Wagner – “spending cuts”…not enough by far but not in Hagel’s powers – see MMoores’ comment, you both conclude that he’s concentrating on internal management corrections necessary possibly.

@James Canning. I agree about defense spending, but about the surge you’re wrong – at the time of the surge, US troops didn’t even compensate for the withdrawal of troops by the ‘coalition of the willing’ partners – actually paying the ‘sons of Iraq’ to NOT blow themselves up to fight shiite dominance/supremacy was the key (see Prof Pape)

@icarusr – Rape and Discrimination within the US army has skyrocketed recently without any significant inferences/ appropriate persecutions, don’t expect Hagel to do very much about it as US army morale is at a low point and to additionally confront the macho-culture within the army would need a Revolutionary.

Let’s end one injustice after the other in due time…

I recommend to all of you the latest Democracynow.org report on Sudan and Bahrain btw…

Talk, Discuss, Dissent – Learn, Confirm and/or Rediscover/Renew – Falsify, and have the Honor to admit mistakes, be able to reconsider dogmas/ axioms.

#17 Comment By mojrim On January 26, 2014 @ 4:58 pm


Defense never was the Department of War. The latter became the Department of the Army during unification in 1947. That said, it would be a great idea to eliminate the DoD and return to the two department system of War and Navy. The latter can manage the every day “soft” force interactions and maintaining trade routes while the former can indeed go back to “break glass in case of.”

Of course, that glass never has any reason to be broken as there are literally no existential threats on the horizon.

#18 Comment By Richard Parker On January 27, 2014 @ 12:00 am

I have a job that brings me into regular and sustained conduct with recently discharged service members. Service morale is abysmally low.

Every male officer and enlistee has to do politically correct happy talk about the joy of having women in the services in order to not be expelled from the ranks. If you talk to them in a safe environment after they are forced out, they will bring up (on their own) the crippling effect of women in combat units. Most intend to advise their sons not to enlist.

Our armed forces are long on the way to being primarily social service providers to disguise unemployment among the lower classes. The forces will soon be unable to sustain serious overseas combat for any length of time.

Personally I think this is a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘bug’. The growing ineptness of the US military will be a drag on the desire of our ruling masters for overseas adventures.

#19 Comment By hammersmith On February 4, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

Help me out here–what was the point of focussing on Sessions’ southern drawl…other than northern bigotry?

#20 Comment By Dave On February 5, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

Hagel is trying to clean the messes the Bushes and Obama made.