WASHINGTON -- Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska who survived a stormy confirmation hearing to become the new secretary of defense, had a coming-out party of sorts Wednesday before the National Defense University, the government's graduate school for American and foreign military officers.
Hagel, who had been reminded in that hearing that he once described the Pentagon and U.S. military he would be taking over as "bloated," elaborated on the notion in gentler but nevertheless specific terms. He warned his audience that the fiscal "sequester" imposed on the federal bureaucracy by Congress would probably take an even deeper cut out of the military than was first anticipated.
Hagel's warning should not have come as a surprise. Although he comes from a political party traditionally known as the staunchest defender of a strong military, he has never been reluctant to criticize it. As a senator, he was particularly critical of its diversion into Iraq from its mission in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So the notion that putting a Republican in charge at the Pentagon would provide political cover for the Obama administration was never in the cards.
Hagel gave his audience a cold-eyed appraisal of what's in store, in light not only of the imposed sequester but also the realities of a changed challenge to the American military, whose power he said "must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits." Most of today's threats "do not necessarily lend themselves to being resolved by conventional military strength," he said, noting that such power could not cope on 9/11 with "19 fanatical men wielding box cutters and one-way plane tickets."
Suggesting that the American military had become muscle-bound, Hagel reported that that since 9/11 it has "grown more deployable, more expeditionary, more flexible and more professional," but also older in its equipment "and enormously more expensive in almost every area."
What will be required, he said, is "change that involves not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices but, where necessary, fashioning entirely new ones that are better suited to 21st-century realities and challenges." He expressed concern "that despite pruning many major procurement programs over the past four years, the military's modernization strategy still depends on systems that are vastly more expensive and technologically risky than what was promised or budget for."
The new defense secretary, sounding somewhat harried already at the scope of the task before him, also complained that the Defense Department continued to maintain what he called "the world's largest back office." It was a reference to the vast support apparatus behind the men and women in the field and the huge costs of maintaining it, as well as providing health care and other benefits.
But perhaps to counter the concerns of critics wary of his reservations about American military involvements abroad, Hagel offered reassurance. "America does not have the luxury of retrenchment," he said. "We have too many global interests at stake, including our security, our prosperity and our future. If we refuse to lead, something, someone will fill the vacuum. The next great power may not use its power as responsibly or judiciously as America has used its power over the decades since World War II."
One wonders, however, whether Hagel, in so saying, intended to include the American invasion of Iraq and the prolonged war in Afghanistan that has taken on the aspect of nation-building. In any event, this new man in the Pentagon will bear further watching, and no doubt will get it from congressional Republicans and Democrats alike.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)