TheDC’s Jamie Weinstein: Reluctant warrior Hagel could make war more likely

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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President Barack Obama’s decision to nominate former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary is a poor choice for many reasons, but primarily because of the signals his selection sends domestically and internationally — signals which could actually make war more likely for America, not less.

Take Iran, for instance.

Hagel voted against labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization in the Senate, refused to sign a letter urging the European Union to label Hezbollah a terrorist group and has said a military strike against Iran is not a viable option to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option,” he said in 2006.

Since President Obama says military options are on the table, Hagel supporters say that it is the president’s position we should care about, not Hagel’s.

Put aside for a moment whether that’s entirely true  — are critics really saying the Pentagon chief is completely irrelevant to such a discussion? — the mere nomination of Hagel sends a significant message to the world. Iran is watching what is going on in Washington. They know Hagel’s positions. And they are reportedly looking on his nomination with glee.

Does not Hagel’s nomination signal to Iranian leadership that President Obama is not particularly serious about using military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program if necessary? And if that’s the signal they’re getting, won’t that give them added incentive to continue their nuclear program without fear the U.S. will mount any military strike against it?

At least one Obama adviser fears that consequence.

“So far, Obama’s big problem is that the threat to use force has not seemed credible,” the unnamed White House adviser told the New York Times. “The question is whether if Chuck is defense secretary, the Iranians would take seriously the thought that he is willing to use force if it comes to that.”

If Iran takes Hagel’s nomination as a signal Washington isn’t serious about stopping its nuclear breakout, then the nomination actually makes military conflict with the Islamic Republic more likely — assuming, of course, the Iranians are wrong and President Obama is serious when he says all options are on the table in stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability.

Domestically, Hagel’s nomination signals that President Obama is intent on gutting the Defense Department.

Think about it. President Obama knows he is going to have to deal with the GOP on spending cuts. Even though he says he still wants to tax the rich, that card is essentially played out after the fiscal cliff deal. The president has shown little sign he seriously wants to address the greatest driver of our long-term fiscal problem, Medicare. So what card does he have left to shield Medicare in debt negotiations? Defense.

That’s why Hagel is so attractive to the president: he is a rare Republican who is enthusiastic about making defense cuts.

You can already hear the president’s campaign-style speeches to the nation, coming to a TV near you very soon: “Let’s be clear: No one wants a weakened military, certainly not the commander in chief. But my secretary of defense, a conservative Republican and a Vietnam veteran mind you, agrees that there is plenty of room to in the military budget to save money. We aren’t going to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and elderly alone.  The Republicans in Congress need to face up to this reality. We have to have a balanced approach. Everything must be on the table, including defense.”

Bill Burton, a former White House deputy press secretary, admitted that a main appeal of placing Hagel at defense is that he can help make the budget cuts more palatable.

“This is a guy who’s a decorated veteran, and when you’ve got a period of time when you’re going to have to make huge cuts to the Pentagon, he’s the sort of guy you want on your team doing it,” he told MSNBC.

President Obama’s current defense chief, Leon Panetta, disagrees with Hagel on defense cuts. He made clear in testimony that significant cuts to defense beyond what have already been enacted would be catastrophic to our military readiness. Other military leaders have concurred with Panetta’s stark assessment.

And indeed, you can argue that more steep cuts to our defense also sends a signal to Iran, as well as our other adversaries, of American weakness, which may also make a military confrontation more likely.

Ironically, Hagel, whose service in Vietnam has been rightly praised, is being sold to the public as a reluctant warrior. But he may be a reluctant warrior whose views make war more likely.

So, the operative question is: Can Hagel be stopped?

I think it is unlikely, unless game-changing information emerges that hasn’t yet been revealed, or unless there is a senator willing to filibuster his nomination. Theoretically, Hagel could also go off the deep end during his confirmation hearing, which will be must-see TV regardless.

Senators reasonably give deference to presidents on their cabinet nominees, and while there may be more “no” votes from Democrats and Republicans than usual on such a high ranking cabinet nominee, I suspect at the end of the day the president will get the votes he needs on Hagel.

Yes, the president will probably get his man, but that doesn’t mean he should be allowed to get his defense cuts.

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Jamie Weinstein