Chip Somodevilla/Reuters
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (center l.) and France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (center r.) and their delegations hold a bilateral meeting during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Defense Ministers Meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday.

NATO meeting: Chuck Hagel misses his debutant ball

With the nomination of Chuck Hagel in limbo, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta travels to Brussels to warn other NATO defense chiefs about effects from US budget battles.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is meeting with NATO defense chiefs in Brussels to deliver the news that Washington’s unresolved budget battles will have an impact on US participation in Europe’s defense and the alliance’s military readiness.

Underscoring an image of Washington dysfunction is the fact that Secretary Panetta, who bid farewell to the Pentagon last Friday, had to take this trip at all.

Under other circumstances, this week’s NATO meeting would have been the debut event for former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R), President Obama’s nominee to replace Panetta.

But Mr. Hagel’s Senate confirmation is stuck in limbo with Congress on recess this week. The troubled nomination suffered a new setback Thursday when a group of 15 Republican senators called on Mr. Obama to withdraw Hagel’s nomination.

The senators – among whom is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – justified their demand by saying it would be “unprecedented for a Secretary of Defense to take office without the broad base of bipartisan support and confidence needed to serve effectively in this critical position.”

That reasoning appeared to turn on its head the argument of Hagel’s Democratic supporters – that it is “unprecedented” for senators to hold up a vote on a president’s Defense secretary nominee along party lines.

Whether the senators’ letter will have any impact on Hagel’s prospects remains unclear. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the senators and their letter put “political posturing above national security,” and Hagel got a boost Thursday when Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama said in a newspaper interview that he expects to vote in favor of confirmation.

Also seen as a plus for Hagel is the absence of both Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire from the letter to Obama.

Senator McCain, a prominent member of the Armed Services Committee, said last week that he does not believe Hagel is qualified for the Pentagon job but that he thought the nomination would proceed to a vote once Congress is back in session next week. Senator Ayotte, a rising Republican voice on security issues, already voted once to block a Hagel confirmation vote.

On a simple yea-or-nay vote, Hagel would need the support of 51 senators, a threshold he would be expected to pass given the 55-member Senate Democratic Caucus.

A vote on Hagel is now expected next week – but not before the political wrangling that forced Panetta to make a last trip as Pentagon chief.

Before Panetta’s meetings at NATO Thursday and Friday, Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters in Brussels that Panetta would warn his NATO counterparts that across-the-board US spending cuts set to take effect March 1 will affect American military readiness and US contributions to the alliance.

“Put all of this together, [and] US lack of readiness equals NATO lack of readiness,” Mr. Little said.

But Panetta’s message is very likely overstated and may be counterproductive if it alarms Europeans into thinking the United States is becoming an unreliable and domestically preoccupied ally, some defense analysts say.

“He has to be careful, because he could leave them saying, ‘Oh my goodness, we really can’t count on them anymore,’ ” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington. Too much “sky is falling” talk from the Pentagon could suggest the US is “at risk of becoming a second-rate military power with these cuts, when that’s just not the case,” he says.

Others recall former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s valedictory remarks to NATO allies in 2011, when he told them they must either do more to pull their own defense weight or risk a “dim future” for the transatlantic alliance. What Panetta may be up to, they say, is to reinforce Gates’s words by suggesting that with US defense spending going down, the Europeans really have no choice but to reverse their falling defense spending.

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