Published December 21. 2012 4:00AM
The debate over whether Chuck Hagel should be appointed secretary of defense has centered on his sometimes critical views of Israel. But that's the wrong issue. The question is whether Hagel is the right person to run the Pentagon at a delicate moment of transition in defense policy and spending.
Hagel has been unusually blunt in resisting political pressure from pro-Israel groups, which led Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, to charge that his past comments "border on anti-Semitism." This allegation isn't supported by anything I've heard or seen. Moreover, the secretary of defense doesn't set U.S. policy in the Middle East; the U.S.-Israeli alliance will remain solid regardless of who runs the Pentagon.
"Chuck is someone who is committed to our allies, and one of our strongest allies worldwide is Israel," argues Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, adding a comment that surely would be endorsed by other former colleagues: "I've known him for years, and there's no evidence to support the suggestion that he's anti-Semitic."
The harder puzzle for the White House is whether Hagel would be the best manager during an important inflection point in Pentagon history. The U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will be ending, and the services will be fighting over how to divide a shrinking budget.
Hagel brings some obvious pluses on both counts: As a Republican and a genuine military hero when he served as an enlisted man in Vietnam, he can give President Obama cover as he executes the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Hagel is angry about what he sees as the misconceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as perhaps only a combat veteran can be. If he had his way, the troops probably would have come home yesterday. But this impatience is also slightly worrying. The withdrawal will succeed only if our military leaves an Afghanistan that can hold together.
Hagel's military record is surely one big reason why the president wants him. He's a guy who, as Reed says, knows how to talk to the troops and has walked in their boots. He's blunt, direct and impatient with pettifogging. In these traits, he's similar to the current secretary, Leon Panetta, and his predecessor, Bob Gates. And like both of them, Hagel has a temper.
Gates was the most successful defense secretary in modern times, for reasons worth considering now. He understood how to manage the Pentagon and did it not by getting down in the weeds but by staying above them. He delegated the busywork to Pentagon bureaucrats and made the big decisions himself. He was effective partly because people were scared of him. They knew that if they crossed the secretary, they would get fired. This brought a rare accountability.
Hagel could do the tough, no-nonsense-boss part of the job. But Gates had another essential talent that will be harder to match. He was a genuine national-security intellectual, who had studied how to manage and motivate huge institutions when he was director of the CIA and at the National Security Council. He knew the big strategic things about defense policy, but he also knew the little technical things. Gates was such a sawed-off shotgun of a guy that it was easy to miss that he was also a subtle thinker.
Nobody who knows Hagel would describe him as a defense intellectual. He's more blunt than nuanced. How would he steer Pentagon procurement decisions in this age of new technologies and strategic matrices? I'm not sure. How would he manage the chiefs in their knife fights over the budget? Again, I'm not sure.
In terms of pure experience and expertise in managing the Pentagon, the best choice might be John Hamre, who served as Pentagon comptroller and deputy secretary under President Clinton and has been studying these problems since 2000 as president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Obama asked him to come back as deputy secretary in 2009, but he's had little contact with the president since he declined that offer, and he evidently isn't on the list now.
If Hagel gets the job, he will need two things: First is a willingness to say no to the chiefs and their logrolling allies on Capitol Hill. I suspect he would do fine with that part. Second, he will need a partner on the order of Hamre, or former undersecretary Michele Flournoy, who can serve as his deputy and chief operating officer and help him manage the immensely complex decisions about defense spending and strategy. Without such a partner, it will be hard for Hagel to succeed.