Why Chuck Hagel terrifies hawks, GOP

His critics focus on his stances on Israel and Iran. They're really afraid he'd slash budgets and weapons systems

Published January 7, 2013 5:00PM (EST)

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel  (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

Here's a rule of thumb for understanding Washington politics: On the rare occasion when everything including the kitchen sink gets thrown at a Cabinet nominee to block an appointment, there's a solid chance that the opposition is not merely about the collage of negative headlines. Instead, it's more likely that the opposition is motivated by a deeper belief that the nominee fundamentally threatens the Beltway's Permanent Bipartisan Power Structure™. That is particularly the case when a nominee is seen as a threat to the lucrative business of permanent war -- a business whose profit margins, employment footprint across America, campaign contributions and think-tank underwriting make it, by far, the most powerful pillar of that power structure.

This, no doubt, is a good way to understand what is almost certainly fueling much of the opposition to the nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense.

At first glance, much (though not all) of that opposition may seem bewildering. Why would Republican senators so adamantly oppose one of their own to head the Pentagon? Why would a Republican House member go even further and insist there were "more qualified" Democrats for Obama to nominate? At the same time, why would some Democrats potentially work to defeat their own president's nominee?

More questions flow from the confusion: Does the opposition really believe Hagel's push to have Israel negotiate with Hamas makes him an anti-Semite? Does it actually believe Hagel's criticism of the Iraq War and push to defuse military tensions with Iran means the Vietnam War hero has, as Republican freshman Sen. Ted Cruz said this weekend, "repeatedly been soft on our enemies"?

In a political cauldron where extreme rhetoric and policy positions are now utterly mundane, sure, it's entirely possible that some believe such nonsense.* However, just as likely is the possibility that many of these critics are generating such over-the-top charges knowing full well that Hagel's nomination has a better-than-average chance of being defeated not because of the issues in the headlines -- but because of what positions he is perceived (and I stress "perceived") to hold about defense spending.

Specifically, at the very moment that the defense industry's army of lobbyists is already in a full-on panic about mild sequestration cuts to the Pentagon, Hagel is viewed by the defense-coddling D.C. establishment as a threat to defense spending -- thanks to two previously little-noticed comments he made in 2011. In an interview that year with the Financial Times about a defense budget that is bigger than most of the rest of the world's combined (and one that can't account for $2 trillion), he dared to say that said budget "has been bloated" and "needs to be pared down." In a separate speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, he said the "Defense Department budget (is) not a jobs program -- it's not an economic development program for my state or any district."

As U.S. News and World Report points out, these statements track recent public opinion polling data showing far more Americans believe we spend too much on the military rather than too little. Yet, as mainstream as Hagel's comments are in America at large, they are considered radical in a Washington where the same Republican senators who decry the deficit cite the prospect of any defense spending cuts ("sequestration") as a major reason to avoid a long-term bipartisan budget deal.

This is why, if you listen closely, you can hear defense spending as a common theme bubbling beneath much of the diffuse noise against Hagel's nomination. For example, after reeling off the now-standard talking points about Hagel being weak and "naive," Texas Sen. John Cornyn (who has raked in a whopping $355,026 from the defense industry) let slip that one of his big concerns is that Hagel purportedly "believes the Defense Department can sustain the sort of draconian cuts contained in sequestration." Likewise, in a Wall Street Journal column, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton concluded a tirade against Hagel by slamming him for "seem(ing) willing to accept devastating cuts to defense spending." Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board, a longtime stalwart supporter of more defense spending, cited Hagel's willingness to discuss the Pentagon's bloated budget as (not coincidentally) the very first reason to oppose his nomination.

The idea of defense budget issues as the most powerful underlying force against Hagel's nomination was inadvertently summed up by Brietbart.com's editor in chief Joel Pollak. In typical breathless and hysterical Breitbart style, his screed against Hagel accidentally elucidated exactly what the defense industry and its bought-and-paid-for legislators in Washington most fear (emphasis added):

In Hagel’s case, he is being chosen to oversee massive cuts in defense spending--not just the $500 billion set to take effect with the impending sequester, but hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending cuts already in the works. Hagel would give those cuts a bipartisan veneer -- and perhaps a layer of extra protection against criticism.

Of course, the very notion of Hagel as a Pentagon budget cutter -- or, as Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin put it, a legislator displaying an "antipathy toward defense spending" -- is idiotic, but revealingly so.

A quick perusal of Hagel's voting record over the last 10 years shows a lawmaker who reliably supported nearly every Pentagon spending bill before the U.S. Senate -- and that was during the post-9/11 era when those spending bills were increasing defense outlays. So devoted to Pentagon spending was Hagel, in fact, that even when he was speaking out against the continuation of the Iraq War he was still loyally voting for spending bills to fund that war. Meanwhile, in that same period, he also sponsored a bill to increase the United States' standing army by 30,000 troops -- a proposal that would have spent even more money on the Pentagon.

Before the post-9/11 buildup it was much the same story, as Hagel built a profile as a leading Republican voice criticizing the Congress for not spending enough on the Pentagon. In his 1996 run for office, for instance, he made local headlines pushing for a national missile defense system and, according to the Lincoln Journal Star, for criticizing the fact that "the defense budget has been severely limited during the four years of the Clinton administration." Similarly, in 1998, the Omaha World Herald reported on his speech stating bluntly that "we need to increase (defense) spending."

All of Hagel's support for defense spending, no doubt, is why so many of his Senate staffers were able to land post-government jobs as defense industry lobbyists.

What's illustrative about the effort to now portray Hagel as a dangerous Pentagon penny pincher is what that effort says about the larger discussion of military spending in Washington. It says that the discourse is so thoroughly dominated by the unquestioned assumption that military spending must increase that a senator with the aforementioned record is portrayed as a radical -- or, as the Washington Post editorial board put it, being "near the fringe" on such spending issues. Why is he depicted in such polarizing terms? Because despite his lockstep pro-Pentagon-spending voting record and requisite connections to defense industry lobbyists, he once publicly admitted there is waste in the defense budget, might support some sequestration cuts (though even that's not entirely clear) and therefore he seems to agree with most Americans that the defense budget is not too small.

That this posture is considered unacceptable in Washington proves that the Guardian's Michael Cohen is exactly right -- the crusade against Hagel is "indicative of the mindlessness that surrounds the issue of defense spending" in general. Responding to the Post editorial, he writes (emphasis added):

The sequestration cuts are significant, but it's important to understand that if they were to go into effect, they would return the Pentagon to fiscal year 2007 levels. The idea that cuts of this nature are the height of irresponsibility is the height of insanity. In 2007, the Pentagon was fighting a war with more than 100,00 troops in Iraq. Today, there are no troops in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, so the idea that defense spending should remain at the same level as when the U.S. was fighting both of these wars is hard to sustain.

Beyond that point, the U.S. today faces no serious security threat and, more importantly, confronts a world that has never been less violent, more safe and less likely to be afflicted by great power conflict than at any point in, well, human history. The US dramatically outspends the rest of the world on military hardware and, in the cases of America's European and Far East allies, largely subsidizes their security needs. From this perspective, the potential secretary of defense nominee who should be of concern to the Post is one who doesn't believe the Pentagon budget is bloated.

That last line of the Cohen excerpt is the real kicker, especially with none other than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently declaring that debt -- Read: continued profligate spending on stuff like financially unsustainable Pentagon programs -- is the single biggest threat to America's national security. Yet, as the treatment of Hagel shows, a defense secretary nominee even vaguely agreeing that Pentagon overspending is a problem is committing a high crime in a capital city whose lifeblood is defense industry cash.

In light of all this, then, there should be no doubt that Hagel's (belated) opposition to the Iraq War, his refusal to back a preemptive war against Iran and his mildly less hawkish rhetoric than fellow Republicans are all viewed by his opponents not, as the headlines suggest, exclusively through the lens of foreign policy ideology, but also through the prism of defense spending. After all, new wars and occupations are major profit opportunities for defense contractors, meaning Hagel is seen as a special kind of threat. Not only does he seem interested in reducing general Pentagon waste, he's also not itching for emergency war appropriations.

To a Permanent Bipartisan Power Structure™ that warrants a scorched-earth opposition crusade. Knowing Hagel's war medals insulate him from being slandered as an America-hating terrorist appeaser, that power structure is settled on an achievable goal: mounting the rare campaign to halt a Cabinet appointment before a potential apostate is ever permitted to reclaim a national platform.

*NOTE: It is worth reiterating that not all of the opposition to Hagel is nonsensical. There are clearly legitimate questions about Hagel's ugly record on equal rights. But that line of legitimate criticism is not coming from the hawks who nonsensically criticize Hagel as weak on defense. It is that latter headline-grabbing opposition that is I'm addressing in this article.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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