Chuck Hagel sworn in as Defense secretary. Will he be sorry?

The office for Chuck Hagel is palatial, his responsibilities extraordinary, his staff vast. But his job is also probably the second most difficult in the executive branch after the presidency itself.

Cliff Owen/AP
New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to service members and civilian employees at the Pentagon, Wednesday, after being sworn-in. Hagel took charge of the Defense Department Wednesday after a bruising confirmation fight, and two days before billions in budget cuts are scheduled to hit the military.

Chuck Hagel on Wednesday morning was sworn in as secretary of Defense. He took the oath of office in a private ceremony at the Pentagon and immediately set to work at his new and challenging cabinet-level job, preparing an address to department employees.

After a bitter seven-week confirmation fight, will this be an occasion that the Republican former senator from Nebraska treasures the rest of his life? Or will he rue the day he walked into the bureaucratic snake pit that is the E-ring?

To a certain extent, this question is rhetorical, of course. No matter how this turns out, Secretary Hagel will always have the memory of holding one of America’s most coveted political jobs. His office is palatial, his responsibilities extraordinary, his staff vast. When we covered the Pentagon, a friend who worked there would occasionally drag us out to the helipad. We’d stand there and watch the secretary of the time stride out with his military escort and then disappear in a roaring, gleaming US Marine helicopter.

“Now that,” our friend would say as the dust settled, “is American power.”

But for all the glory, it’s also probably the second most difficult job in the executive branch after the presidency itself.

As of now, Hagel is CEO of a $700 billion company. He’s just taken office, yet all his division heads, otherwise known as the “Joint Chiefs of Staff,” have spent their whole adult lives working up through the company’s ranks. He’ll never match their institutional knowledge.

He’ll immediately confront crucial billion-dollar decisions. (“Chief, what should we do about the F-35”?) The Joint Chiefs will have their own opinions on these, which they’ve had lots of time to hone. Oh, and these decisions affect thousands of jobs in congressional districts across the United States, so Congress will weigh in as well. Often.

Did we say these decisions also involve the nation’s very security? And that Hagel is in the nation’s chain of command, meaning he’s also got some responsibility for formulating policy and directing the operations of US troops now in harm’s way, wherever they are?

All this is why some SecDefs appear happy to spend time on morale-boosting visits to foreign bases, while underlings run things back in Washington.

In addition to the weight of the job, Hagel will face a number of problems particular to him.

The 'sequester.' The big automatic budget cuts known as sequestration look almost certain to take effect Friday. That means Hagel could be grappling with a semi-crisis within days as he loses $46 billion of his budget.

The Senate. Part of the job of secretary of Defense is dealing with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and military appropriations subcommittees. Right now, Hagel’s got problems with the Senate part of this equation. His nomination passed SASC by only 14 to 11, and his performance at his confirmation hearing was unimpressive, at best.

“He will take office with the weakest support of any Defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective [in] his job,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP’s minority whip.

Of course, a revenge-minded SecDef might find opportunity in the fact that he’s supposed to rebuild relations with people who came after him in the first place. As former Pentagon official Lawrence J. Korb writes in Foreign Policy, there are lots of ways he can get back at his GOP foes if he chooses.

He could draw up lists of bases in his adversaries' states for possible closure, cancel weapons systems that senators support, move military units out of his foes' states, and so forth.

“His choices could hurt the constituents of the very officials who have done the most to hurt him,” Mr. Korb writes.

The press. Finally, Hagel may face a media primed to cover any misstep. During his confirmation hearing, he hemmed, hawed, and occasionally misstated administration policy. Any similar mistake he makes now will be picked up and magnified.

He doesn’t even have to make them now; it might be enough to newly unearth stuff he said in the past. Witness the latest flap: A 2011 Hagel speech, in which he said India has over the years financed trouble for Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan, has riled the Indian government.

The remark was published by the Washington Free Beacon, a muckraking conservative journal.

“Such comments attributed to Sen. Hagel ... are contrary to the reality of India’s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people,” said a statement issued in response by the Indian Embassy in Washington.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.