In the end, President Obama got the Defense Secretary he wanted. On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate voted to confirm former NE Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Defense Department. An unprecedented 41 Senators voted against Hagel’s nomination. In the history of the Republic, no other Defense Secretary had been approved with more than 11 votes in opposition. Hagel now has the job title, but he doesn’t have the political authority necessary to be successful. He won confirmation, but he failed his nomination.
Secretary of Defense is one of the most difficult, and important, jobs in the world. The SecDef oversees a budget larger than any in the world that isn’t a sovereign government. With a million plus men and women in uniform and hundreds of thousands of civilian and contract employees, the Pentagon is one of the largest organizations on the planet. The tradition of putting civilians in charge of the Department means the agency is being led by someone from outside its corridors. It takes deep wells of political capital to navigate successfully.
Hagel was always an odd choice for the job. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Hagel offered honorable service to the nation and offered the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the country’s interest. Yet his tenure in the Senate and the intervening years was devoted to larger issue of foreign policy, rather than specific issues of national security policy. He served on the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, rather than the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military. His political career is designed more for a post as Secretary of State or UN Ambassador, rather than SecDef.
This was clear in his confirmation hearings, when he admitted he didn’t know a lot about specific military programs, but would be able to learn quickly on the job. They have a term for folks like this within the Pentagon; prey.
The Pentagon is famously bureaucratic. In addition to tensions between uniformed and civilian employees, there is competition between the different services. Entering an era of budget austerity, entire wings of the Pentagon will be defending their policy priorities against other wings. To successfully manage this, a SecDef needs to have unquestioned political authority on Capitol Hill. A SecDef like Leon Panetta, who has deep relationships in Congress, can prevent the political infighting where certain offices of the Pentagon try to gain advantage over others by leveraging their own contacts with Congressional offices. With 41 votes against his confirmation, Hagel has none of this authority.
Because of this, Hagel is a failed nominee. He won the office, but the questions raised during his confirmation debate have neutered him within the Department. America has never had a Defense Secretary who didn’t enjoy broad bi-partisan support on The Hill. Hagel’s confirmation is historic, but for all the wrong reasons.