Thursday, January 31, 2013

Confirm Chuck Hagel.

I am sitting here this morning, watching the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the confirmation of Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense. I am not a defense guy; never spent any time in the military, don't work for a government contractor, don't live and breathe defense policy. I do however have a special interest in the intersection between politics (and especially elected political leaders) and defense.

The possibility exists that Chuck Hagel might be a reasonable Pentagon chief. The Senators in the committee room this morning, want to encourage a view of the world that is strictly black and white, and they want to see which side Hagel falls on. The Senators' lines of question can make a reasonable man seem as though he is wavering, inconsistent, flip-flopping. But as a nation, what we have learned over the past sixty years or so, is that nothing in global affairs is black and white; there are very few cases when the sides of good and evil are as clear as they were in Europe in 1941.

Military policy is complex stuff, with a long horizon for impact. The seeds of the Vietnam War were sown at least a decade and a half before the United States committed declared combat troops to the Southeast Asian nation. One of our allies from World War II became a sworn enemy for 45 years immediately after the war's conclusion, and our relationship with that country today remains murky, at best. Our backing of the Afghan forces against the USSR throughout the 1980s helped to give rise to Osama bin Laden. Eleven years ago, we went to war in Afghanistan, and we remain there today. We extricated ourselves from Korea in the 1950s and Iraq in the 2000s, without clearly defining what it is we had accomplished in those two very different countries. 

It is easy for Senators to disparage Hagel, to insist that he make black and white declarations about things that are many shades of gray. It is easy for members of Congress to be reflexively pro-war, because if and when war is indeed made a reality, few will remember the individual members of Congress who rattled their swords, and wars almost always lay at the feet of the presidents who wage them. But clamoring for war, whether in Iran, or Syria, or anywhere else, from the safety of the Dirksen building is not a particularly courageous act.

What Chuck Hagel did during his time in the United States Senate WAS courageous.  Hagel voted his conscience, not the party line. He took the time to consider how his votes would impact America's interests abroad, and importantly how his votes would impact the lives of those who would be sent in to harm's way as a result of Congressional action. Whether those votes were "wrong" or "right," a judgement that is abstract and largely in the eye of the beholder, Hagel is the kind of deliberative official that the United State government would benefit from. I am confident that Hagel will provide the most honest advice he can to the President, without the rose colored glasses that have gotten Defense secretaries in a lot of trouble in the past. 

A long time ago on this blog, I wrote about how the Department of Defense was akin to a sacred cow in Congress. It is viewed by many of our elected leaders, far too many in my opinion, as untouchable. This notion was reiterated today as Senator Jeff Sessions appeared to question Mr. Hagel's potential willingness to reduce the number of nuclear submarines in the Navy's fleet. It was reiterated again when several senators characterized the impending sequester (an across the board cut to most federal government accounts of about 10% that this same Congress itself passed to avoid a fiscal and economic catastrophe that it created in the first place) as meaning disaster for DOD.

The idea that the Pentagon should not be included in the budgetary belt tightening this nation so badly needs is wrong-headed, and should be rejected. Without cuts to Defense, this nation will never be more than half-committed to real fiscal reform. I believe Hagel has the ability and the desire to take a tough look at his department, and make sure the cuts that need to be made are made in such a way that is appropriate and wise. 

I think Hagel will be confirmed, but the fact that someone like John McCain, who once was so proud of his reputation as a maverick that it was the basis for two presidential campaigns, is willing to vote against Hagel for being his own brand of independent, well, that just typifies the insanity of current day Washington DC, and how little these people are actually doing to move this country in the right direction.

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