Hagel’s biggest problem: Inexperience

Alan Goldsmith National Security Professional
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If Chuck Hagel were hawkish on Iran, unequivocally pro-Israel, and a longstanding supporter of gay rights, he still would not be the right choice for secretary of defense. Fierce criticism of Mr. Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon has centered on his general foreign policy bent — in particular his views on Israel and Iran — and his opposition to an ambassadorial selection because the nominee was “openly, aggressively gay.” But it is time to emphasize the biggest problem with Mr. Hagel’s nomination — his lack of managerial and professional qualifications.

The secretary of defense manages a department with an annual budget exceeding half a trillion dollars and a workforce of more than three million. A secretary needs experience running large organizations with entrenched bureaucracies; demonstrated ability to craft and implement policy; knowledge and practice working with the federal budget; and skill at dealing with key outside stakeholders, especially Congress. In this regard, recent defense secretaries possessed extensive experience and accomplishments prior to their respective nominations.

President Obama’s outgoing secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, directed the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of Management and Budget, served as White House chief of staff, and chaired the House Budget Committee. Mr. Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, also directed the CIA, worked for many years in the intelligence community and the National Security Council, and served as president of Texas A&M University.

Donald Rumsfeld, appointed secretary of defense by President George W. Bush in 2001, had already headed the Pentagon once before, from 1975 to 1977. Mr. Rumsfeld also served as White House chief of staff, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and U.S. ambassador to NATO, and held senior executive positions at three large corporations. Many other former defense secretaries, such as William J. Perry, Les Aspin, Dick Cheney, and Caspar Weinberger, were also highly experienced and accomplished.

Mr. Hagel’s record does not rival that of any of those defense secretaries. To his credit, he served with distinction and bravery as an enlisted soldier during the Vietnam War, being wounded twice and earning numerous high honors. He then worked for several years as a congressional staffer and then a lobbyist, served briefly as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, co-founded a successful cellular phone business, and headed the USO and several smaller organizations. Notwithstanding these achievements, Mr. Hagel has never managed any institution whose workforce, bureaucracy, budget, or political sensitivity are remotely comparable to that of the Pentagon.

Mr. Hagel’s accomplishments during his Senate tenure also fall short. One struggles to think of significant legislation that he authored. He chaired no committees and held no leadership posts. Mr. Hagel’s service in the Senate left no lasting mark on that body or national security policy. His efforts since he left the Senate have also had little discernible impact.

Why, then, is President Obama nominating Mr. Hagel for secretary of defense? Introducing his nominee, the president mentioned Mr. Hagel’s admittedly outstanding military service and his principled, independent views, stating, “I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind — even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom.” Perhaps the president is not greatly concerned with the significance of executive experience, given his own lack of such experience before becoming president.

Some of Mr. Hagel’s supporters have favorably cited his criticism of the war in Iraq. Whether or not his opposition to the war was justified, it only came several years after he voted to authorize that same war in 2003. Another possible reason for Mr. Hagel’s nomination is that his Republican affiliation enables the Obama administration to assume a veneer of bipartisanship, even though Mr. Hagel has largely moved away from his party in recent years, did not support the last two Republican presidential nominees, and even endorsed a Democrat in the U.S. Senate election in Nebraska last year.

Regardless, Mr. Hagel’s political positions, right or wrong, Republican or Democratic, do not compensate for his insufficient qualifications for one of the most senior management posts in the executive branch. Particularly at this time of growing challenges to national security and extraordinary pressures on the defense budget, the United States needs the most qualified secretary of defense possible.

Experience and accomplishment are no guarantee of success, but they are a standard prerequisite for it. Whatever his positions on foreign policy and gay rights, Mr. Hagel’s limited qualifications render him the wrong fit to run the Pentagon. America can do better than Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense.

Alan Goldsmith is a national security professional in Washington, D.C. He served as a professional staff member for the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 2007 to 2013.