Chuck the knife
Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 7:00 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — It’s become almost commonplace for Democratic presidents to nominate a Republican to lead the Defense Department, and in the past it worked like a charm, as when Bill Clinton named Maine Sen. William Cohen or President Obama held over Bush Defense Secretary Bob Gates. Republicans cheered those appointments, and confirmation was assured.
This time is different, and not so much because of the early criticism of Republican Chuck Hagel’s comments about Israel, or about gay rights. The resistance goes deeper, and like so much in Washington, the answer is to follow the money.
Hagel’s nomination has the potential to break the link between business and defense, the dangerous alliance that President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower coined the term in his farewell address to the nation in January 1961, warning of its grip in words that proved prescient.
Hagel is the first enlisted soldier to head the Pentagon, and he brings a welcome skepticism of the big weapons systems that burn up billions in cost overruns alone. In an interview he gave in the summer of 2011, he talked about “the abuse and the waste and the fraud” he saw even as a private serving in Vietnam, and then as a sergeant. He is on record for some time saying the Pentagon must be “pared down.”
He is not irresponsible about what should be cut. In that same interview, he said, “No American wants to in any way hurt our capabilities to national defense, but that doesn’t mean an unlimited amount of money and a blank check for anything they want at any time, for any purpose.” It is reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, appropriately known as “Cap the Knife.” “Chuck the Knife” is prepared to outdo him.
Given the budget challenges facing the country, and the Pentagon, Hagel is the man for the moment. He is the Defense Secretary Eisenhower envisioned but did not live to see. Hagel’s skepticism about big defense budgets is longstanding. As a senator from Nebraska, he did not have the burden of representing a state known for its defense industry. He was freer than most to break the choke hold the Pentagon has over so many members whose constituents are dependent on jobs that are spun off from defense contracts.
After leaving the Senate in 2009, Hagel could have done what so many others do, cash in on his connections and sign up with one of the many defense contractors ringing Washington. He didn’t need the money; he earned his fortune by getting into the mobile telephone business in the early ’80s, so early that he had a hard time explaining what he did. He once held up his shoe to his ear to convey how attached consumers would become to their mobile phones.
Hagel endorsed Obama in 2008, but still considers himself a Republican, albeit an ecumenical one. He is a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and has been co-chairing the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
Obama no doubt hoped that Hagel’s Republican pedigree would help ease some of the tension with the opposition over the looming cutbacks in defense. Perhaps some of that goodwill will return, but at the moment, the GOP is gearing up to do battle.
Republicans historically have favored building big weapons systems, sometimes giving short shrift to the troops, nickel-and-diming them on housing and medical care while doing the bidding of the defense contractors.
It’s no accident that the veteran’s groups are strongly in favor of Hagel while the defense establishment worries that he is too eager to carry through on proposed cutbacks.
In the end, policy will be made in the White House by Obama.
Hagel appears to be a perfect fit with the president, which only makes the administration’s critics more nervous.
Published in The Messenger 1.15.13