This editorial from the Chicago Tribune does not necessarily reflect the views of The Spokesman-Review editorial board.
One of the smarter moves Barack Obama made after his election in 2008 was to ask Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, to stay as secretary of defense. Gates had the respect of Republicans and Democrats. He owed nothing to Obama and was likely to tell the new president what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear. Gates understood his role, gave his best advice and carried out the ultimate decisions of the commander in chief.
Gates’ successor, Democrat Leon Panetta, enjoyed similar respect across parties. Panetta spoke frankly and publicly about what levels of spending cuts the military could and could not tolerate.
Particularly in that light, the president’s choice for the next civilian leader of the U.S. military is curious and troubling.
Obama finds a kinship with former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, his nominee for secretary of defense, but few others in Washington do. Democrats are puzzled that Obama has selected a Republican; Republicans don’t think Hagel is a Republican.
Obama wants to transition the U.S. military to a smaller, less-expensive footprint. He needs a defense secretary who has enough credibility to muster support in Congress for that transition. He also needs a defense secretary who will tell him when the zeal for proposed spending cuts puts national security at risk. Hagel is not that defense secretary.
One of the most significant challenges Obama faces is Iran’s dogged ambition to develop nuclear weapons. The president has declared that Iran will not gain nuclear weapons capability. He is relying on economic sanctions to dissuade the mullahs, and those sanctions have had some impact. They have not, though, convinced Iran’s leaders to stand down. The implicit threat is that if sanctions fail, Iran will face a military campaign to destroy its capacity to make and deliver nuclear weapons. The other, untenable option for Obama: stand down, permit Iran to become a nuclear threat and prove that the president’s declarations were complete, useless bluster.
And where will his defense secretary be if the president reaches this unenviable decision?
Hagel has opposed economic sanctions against Iran. He has encouraged engagement with Iran’s leaders, as he has done with the leaders of Syria and North Korea. He has suggested the world could tolerate a nuclear Iran and rely on deterrence, the threat of retaliation, to keep Iran from using its weapons.
“Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term – and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.” That’s not some neoconservative’s assessment. That’s the assessment of the Washington Post editorial page.
In assembling his second-term team President Obama seems to be seeking, first and foremost, a high comfort level for himself. For the good of the nation he should craft – if not a team of rivals – a team that will challenge him. Come the confirmation hearings, the Senate will have sound reason to challenge Chuck Hagel.