The nomination of former Republican Nebraska U.S. senator Chuck Hagel to be the nation's next Secretary of Defense seems imperiled.
Hagel's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee was, to be candid, less than impressive. The nominee was at times unresponsive, unwilling to answer direct questions, and was unable to articulate any kind of basic philosophy that would govern his stewardship of the nation's military establishment. It's too bad, because these are indeed dangerous times and President Barack Obama's national security team needs to be beefed up—and badly.
If things continue on course, the Defense Department is going to have to absorb across-the-board cuts of $60 billion per year over the next decade. To manage this effectively requires an ability to prioritize that has not been seen for some time among defense professionals. America needs a secretary who has the stature to stand up to the White House on critical defense issues and who can pressure Congress to make the cuts in a more responsible, more carefully thought out manner or at least to allow some executive discretion in how the money is moved around. Already there are reports that major capital ships cannot leave port and take up their duty stations on schedule because the cuts coming down the pike will delay the retrofitting and rehabilitation needed to keep them operating at peak capacity.
A number of conservative groups are trying to block the nomination, including Let Freedom Ring, where I am a senior fellow, which has released a short video accusing Hagel of "waving the white flag in advance" when it comes to dealing with terrorists.
Hagel's supporters, who include some conservatives who might be called "neo-isolationists" are coming to his aid but may be doing more harm than good. Included in the materials they are circulating is a piece saying Israel "would exercise its longstanding, constitutionally granted veto power over American policy if U.S. lawmakers confirmed" him as the next defense secretary. The "Conservatives for Peace" who are sharing it did not make it obvious that the piece came from The Onion, a satirical publication that pokes fun at the way Washington does business, leading some people to wonder if they were serious.
Still and all, the piece only serves to reinforce the idea that many Republican opponents of the nomination have that Hagel is no friend to America's strongest ally in the Middle East.
Had the president looked harder he could have easily found a better nominee than Hagel, even from among the ranks of Republican Party. There are any number of current and former elected GOP officials who might be willing to take on the job just to make sure it's done correctly—especially now that it looks like the sequester is going to happen. One idea that comes to mind is former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and former secretary of state Colin Powell who in fact might welcome the chance to again follow in the footsteps of his hero, Gen. George C. Marshall, whom President Harry S Truman called backed to duty at the Pentagon late in his administration.
Powell might be unpopular with some Republicans but no less so than Hagel, whom conservative critics continue to lambast. GOP members of the Armed Services Committee have lobbied committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin to delay the final vote on Hagel's confirmation despite the Michigan Democrat's promise to bring the matter to a swift conclusion. Time will tell whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can find enough votes to get the nomination to the floor—even as there is talk of it being filibustered. The better course would be for the White House to withdraw the nomination and begin again, with Powell or someone else, someone who clearly has the vision and the temperament to handle one of what most everyone agrees is one of Washington's toughest jobs.