Chuck Hagel, nominee for Secretary of Defense and former Senator from Nebraska, has lately expressed support for cuts to defense spending that place him in agreement with President Barack Obama. Yet while he was in Congress, Hagel voted for defense spending and vigorously opposed cuts–even as he railed against the Iraq War.
In 2005, in an address to the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Hagel warned against defense cuts that would repeat the mistakes of recent history:
The Europeans, our European allies in Nato, most every one of them…have been going this way [down] with their defense budgets. We did that for the first six years of the 90’s–because what was the threat? The Soviet Union had imploded, there was no evil in the world left, boundless opportunities for democracy as far as the eye can see. What was the threat? Well, for six years, we cut our defense budget, we cut our intelligence community budget, and we even cut our State Department budget…So we brought some of this on ourselves. It teaches us a good lesson about the world–a lesson we continue to learn, generation after generation.
The only area of government consistently targeted for deep cuts under President Obama, who has run the most profligate government in American history, has been defense. On Obama’s watch, $400 billion was cut under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; another $400 billion was cut under Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; and now another $500 billion will be cut from the department if the sequestration takes place.
In 2011, Hagel appeared to support additional defense cuts, apparently because he believed that the Department of Defense had absorbed spending that should have gone to other departments, and because of “the abuse and the waste and the fraud.” That belief aligns Hagel, a Republican, with President Obama and the Democratic Party.
Yet Hagel’s remarks in 2005 support a dramatically different view–that it is dangerous to cut defense spending drastically in peacetime because doing so could allow new threats to emerge.
It is unclear precisely why Hagel reversed his position. One reason may have been Hagel’s opposition to “neoconservatives,” which began to define his views early in the Bush administration. In 2005, it was fashionable among critics of the Bush administration to decry the small size of the military that the U.S. took to war in Iraq.
By 2011, with conservatives (both “neo” and otherwise) attacking President Obama’s defense cuts and general strategy of geopolitical withdrawal, it was now fashionable among former Bush critics to argue for a smaller military. Hagel may have been following that trend.
Another common theme between Hagel’s views in 2005 and in 2011 is his enthusiasm for the State Department and diplomacy in general. Hagel’s comments on defense cuts in 2005 were delivered in the course of arguing that the U.S. should commit itself to diplomacy and to strengthening international institutions.
It may be, as Eli Lake of the Daily Beast has suggested, that Hagel’s views are prone to rapid changes (which would also explain why so many Republicans who oppose Hagel today might well have found cause to support him before).
Regardless, the Senate must ask Hagel to clarify his views. His warning in 2005 certainly applies to the Obama administration today, which is cutting defense with little regard to the consequences.