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Chuck Hagel: The Invisible Man

The new secretary of defense was the great hope of realists and non-interventionists. But where is he today?

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 for same sex couples in the military. He faces an evolving sexual assault crisis that touches both enlisted and officer ranks, and is currently responding to two potentially explosive corruption scandals unfolding simultaneously in the Air Force and Navy.

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 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 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 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. 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 and signed by Obama on January 17. It’s $39 billion below what the administration wanted, but as observers point out, it avoids further sequester cuts, and Congress padded an $85 billion overseas contingency account with their usual earmarks anyway.

According to a recent report, 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.”



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