In reviewing dozens of speeches delivered by former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) over the past several years, one common theme emerges: he has very little interest in defense policy, and a great deal of interest in international diplomacy.
Indeed, Hagel has spoken about military affairs so rarely–except to suggest the limits of U.S. military power–that it is unclear why he would be interested in the position of Secretary of Defense at all.
When Hagel does speak about U.S. defense policy, he seems out of his depth. He denounced the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq, for instance, and predicted its failure; ultimately, the surge proved critical in defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq and enabling the withdrawal for which President Barack Obama now takes political credit (though even that withdrawal proceeded under an agreement concluded by George W. Bush).
Moreover, Hagel’s distinguished service as an enlisted soldier does not seem to have led him to a broader interest in defense policy. He was once Deputy Director of the Veterans Administration, but resigned in 1982 over policy differences with the agency’s director (who had also been accused of corruption). More recently, he has co-chaired the President’s intelligence advisory board, but remains preoccupied with global affairs.
Were his own foreign policy views not so radical, and were the job not already taken, Hagel’s interests might make him a natural appointment as Secretary of State. In speech after speech over the years, Hagel lectures at length about the importance of multilateralism, the lack of U.S. leadership in major international institutions like the UN, and the need for America to reach out and to build international coalitions around common purposes.
Hagel’s weakness is that he sees diplomacy as a goal above all others. He rejects the use of force in almost every circumstance, and even rejects diplomatic postures that might be interpreted as provocative by our more warlike enemies. That is why he spoke against Israel’s response to Hezbollah terror in the Second Lebanon War; that is why he opposed sanctions against Iran; that is why he favored unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Yet what is interesting about Hagel is that he has, at least–unlike too many of his fellow Republicans–arrived at a coherent strategic worldview, one that rightly sees Iran as the center of the challenge for the U.S., even if he wrongly prescribes “engagement”–less charitably, appeasement–as the solution. (It was a view Hagel was reluctant to defend at his Senate confirmation hearing, much to the dismay of his supporters on the left.)
It is difficult to imagine Hagel managing the Pentagon bureaucracy with any success after his stumbling performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He not only renounced some of his former views, but seemed unsure at times what his views were, or what the Obama administration’s policy is on major issues. He was reduced, eventually, to suggesting that his own views on the issues do not actually matter.
That is a weak posture for a Secretary of Defense–but appropriate for a diplomat, who must defend the policies of his government even when he disagrees with them.
The delay of Hagel’s confirmation offers a chance for face-saving compromise: perhaps Hagel ought to be offered Susan Rice’s old UN job, where he would be happier, and do less damage, than at the Pentagon. It would still be a poor appointment, but certainly a better one.