In selecting Republican former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as his nominee for Secretary of Defense, President Barack Obama maintains a recent tradition going back to the Clinton administration of having a Republican—or at least a former Republican—in charge at the Pentagon.
It's not at all clear that outgoing Secretary Leon Panetta wanted to leave but no one is suggesting he has been fired. By all accounts Panetta, a former Republican, was handling reasonably well by most standards what is routinely described as one of Washington's most difficult jobs. He's well liked on Capitol Hill, no one has any major complaints about him, and he's a vital link to the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, having ably served the former president in a number of senior positions including White House chief of staff.
Even most Republicans would call Panetta a statesman, someone who enjoys at least the professional respect of the other party. In the days of David Halberstam he would have been considered "a wise man" if not one of "the best and brightest." When Panetta speaks he speaks from experience and with authority, which makes the choice of his successor somewhat bizarre.
Hagel, by contrast, is a professional gadfly, someone who seems to enjoy playing the iconoclast for its own sake. Were he a nominee for a judgeship instead of the top spot at the Pentagon, the American Bar Association might be forced to conclude he lacked he sufficient judicial temperament necessary to serve on the federal bench.
It is likely that he will clash with Obama and his national security team at least as much as he clashed with those serving George W. Bush. He is out of step, even with Obama himself, on the issue of Iran and has not exactly presented himself as a fan of troops currently in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, he has not established for himself the reputation as the kind of "big thinker" on strategic matters that is needed at this critical moment in U.S. history.
In a foretaste of what may be, his former Republican colleagues in the world's greatest deliberative body have been remarkably cool to his nomination. Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who served in the Bush White House while Hagel was in the Senate said he was "surprised and disappointed President Obama has chosen to move forward with Senator Hagel's nomination given the significant concerns that both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have expressed about Senator Hagel's positions and past votes on issues regarding some of our closest allies and most pressing national security threats." House Majority Leader Eric Canto of Virginia, who doesn't get a vote on the nomination, nonetheless took the time to call Hagel "the wrong man for the job at such a pivotal time."
With the Cold War firmly in the rear view mirror, the United States should be engaged in a project to determine what constitutes the next long term threats are to U.S. national security and how to deal with them. No one has really identified, aside from international terrorism operating in concert with Islamic radicals, what they are. There is certainly a lack of unanimity about what they might be but consider the rise of the Chinese military, the possible dissolution of the nuclear Pakistani state, the spread of anti-American Castro-Chavezism through Latin America or international narcoterrorism as potential candidates. Hagel does not seem to have the intellectual chops to deal with any of them despite his years of service on relevant committees of the U.S. Senate.
Unless he dazzles the Senate Armed Services Committee in his confirmation hearings with a heretofore unrecognized breadth of knowledge and a capacity for strategic thinking that has not been much in evidence, it is probably for the best if the nomination stalls.