Chuck Hagel Is Mainstream Enough To Be Secretary of Defense

Talk of Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense has sparked fights over whether or not his views on defense spending and the Middle East are sufficiently "mainstream."

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Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., talks about his plan for Social Security during an appearance at the University of Nebraska Student Center auditorium in this Monday, March 7, 2005 file photo in Lincoln, Neb. On Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006, Hagel blasted the Bush administration's policies, or lack of, regarding the Middle East.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., talks about his plan for Social Security during an appearance at the University of Nebraska Student Center auditorium in this Monday, March 7, 2005 file photo in Lincoln, Neb. On Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006, Hagel blasted the Bush administration's policies, or lack of, regarding the Middle East.

The mere prospect of the nomination of Sen. Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense has touched off a raging inside-the-Beltway debate over whether Hagel's views—specifically on the Middle East and Pentagon spending—are sufficiently "mainstream." I'll wait to see who the president nominates before I comment on personalities but this mini-controversy offers a great opportunity to revisit the vexed question of what constitutes the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy.

How would we measure that stream of views on national security? There are a number of ways: public opinion; elite policy preferences; the scope of positions in the last presidential elections; and, as the Washington Post's editorial board suggests, the voting record of the U.S. Senate.

Public Opinion: Let's take this one first. Hagel has signaled a willingness to put Pentagon spending on the table in budget talks, saying "Our Defense Department budget, it is not a jobs program. It's not an economic development program for my state or any district." Incidentally, this is the exact same thing that Wes Bush, the CEO of Northrop Grumman, told reporters at a National Press Club event earlier this month. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Does the public agree? A Gallup poll from earlier in the year showed that only 21 percent of Americans think we spend too little on the Pentagon. In May, The Economist found that the American people actively preferred "major cuts" in Pentagon spending by close to a 2-to-1 margin versus major cuts to the crucial programs of Medicare and Social Security combined.

Hagel has also been criticized for suggesting that a preventive military attack on Iran would be unwise. What does the public say? A University of Maryland poll from March showed that 69 percent of Americans favor the U.S. and other major powers continuing to pursue negotiations with Iran. This position is supported by 67 percent of Independents, 58 percent of Republicans, and 79 percent of Democrats. In fact, according to the poll, 3 in 4 Americans say that the U.S. "should primarily act through the U.N. Security Council rather than acting by itself in dealing with the problem of Iran's nuclear program." 

The CIA, Pentagon, and Israeli military intelligence continue to say that Iran has not made the decision to weaponize.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

We're also seeing the argument that Hagel's views on Israel, and his support for the United States talking to Hamas and Hezbollah are somehow anti-Israel. The Israeli Defense Force talks to Hamas and Hezbollah, but fair enough, the IDF is not part of the U.S. mainstream. What do Americans think about this? Per the Chicago Council's biennial public opinion survey, 65 percent say the United States should mediate without taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and 52 percent say the United States should talk to Hamas if it would help promote peace. 

Elite opinion: Certainly, elites know a great deal about international affairs that the public does not. So, who thinks that significant cuts in Pentagon spending are necessary and even potentially beneficial as part of an overall return to economic health? The CEOs of major defense contractors: Wes Bush, chairman, chief executive officer, and president of Northrop Grumman; David P. Hess, president, Pratt & Whitney; Dawne S. Hickton, vice chair, president and chief executive officer, RTI International Metals Inc.; David Langstaff, president and chief executive officer, TASC. More than 130 CEOs signed a letter to the president, which was also sent to the House and Senate, acknowledging the inevitability of cuts.

Hagel's views on the value of negotiating with Iran, and the limits on the utility of sanctions and preventive wars, are widely, if quietly, shared among elites. He joined more than 30 senior military, diplomatic and academic leaders in issuing a report that offered a cold cost-benefit calculus of a military strike on Iran, concluding that one could slow but not reverse Iranian efforts; and more recently, a group of military and economic leaders who suggested that the Senate's fondness for Iran sanctions needed the mooring of a long-term political strategy, including plans for reversing sanctions, to be effective.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

On another issue, two-thirds of living former Secretaries of State and Defense share Hagel's support for making deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. If we have reached the point where two-thirds of living national security cabinet officers are "out of the mainstream" on a national security issue, then someone, somewhere, is defining mainstream wrong.

But let's continue. Earlier this year, academics at the University of Oklahoma and University of Texas-Austin surveyed equal numbers of Democratic and Republican foreign policy professionals at the mid- and senior-levels. Their results found strong majorities on both sides favoring multilateral responses and agreeing that major problems the United States faces cannot be solved alone. They also found strong partisan differences in how favorably Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan were viewed. Again, can the views of the party the voters have chosen to control the Senate and our executive branch national security apparatus really be described as "out of the mainstream?"

Presidential politics: Less than two months ago, we had an election in which voters were offered a choice on national security. There was a candidate who favored increasing Pentagon spending, declining to talk to Israel's adversaries, and bellicose rhetoric toward Iran. He lost. And he lost among the 5 percent of voters who said national security was a primary concern, 33 percent favored Romney as compared to Obama's 56 percent.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Repeal the Scheduled Cuts to Defense Spending?]

Senate politics: Finally, let's consider the views of Hagel's former peers and, perhaps, soon-to-be-interrogators in the Senate. Just this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham said that sequestration, including its defense component, would be preferable to other proposals on the table. Indeed, a majority of Senators voted for sequestration and voted—more than once—for reductions in the rate of growth of Pentagon spending. Meanwhile, if Hagel's opposition to sanctions bills that passed overwhelmingly puts him "outside the mainstream," what about New Hampshire  Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whose proposals to reinstitute torture and open a second offshore Guantanamo were ridiculed by her fellow Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain?

The simplest conclusion one can come to here is that perhaps it is the Senate which is out of the mainstream of American foreign policy thought. Or one can go back to the observation of Walter Russell Mead that theories of U.S. national security fall into one of several schools, and that successful presidents—Republicans and Democrats—usually draw some from each. In the first term, we heard a great deal about Barack Obama's "Team of Rivals." Time and again, it has been the president's visions that prevailed over his powerful and persuasive secretaries of State and Defense, not to mention his impassioned and empowered National Security staff. His re-election was due in no small part to his ability to align his visions with the foreign policy preferences of the American public and elites. No nominee is going to change that. But perhaps enough nominations will finally update our understanding of where those preferences truly lie.

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