Essay: Why GOP Defense Budget Hawks, Interventionists Are Leery of Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel leaves the Capitol Hill office of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., after the duo met on Jan. 22. Nine days later, McCain grilled the now-sitting defense secretary at his confirmation hearing. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel once was a Republican United States senator. Several members of the party’s old-school defense budget hawk and interventionist wings count Hagel as an old friend. After all, his congressional voting record isn’t that different from their own records.

The GOP military spending hawks and interventionists have a few things in common. Generally, both factions believe in robust Pentagon budgets that grow above the inflation rate each year. They also, for the most part, believe in a large U.S. military that should be used frequently for all sorts of reasons, from pursuing American interests to fighting al Qaida across the Middle East and North Africa to confronting dictators and rouge states to promoting democracy worldwide.

They might consider Hagel, whose nomination they fought, an old pal. But, make no mistake, the GOP defense spending hawks and interventionists are skeptical about the new secretary because he simply is not one of them. One must look no further than Hagel’s speech Wednesday at the National Defense University in Washington to understand that.

In calling for Pentagon reforms as annual budgets begin to shrink and sequestration’s yearly bite of $46 billion across-the-board cuts sink in, Hagel said enough to give some of his Republican buddies-turned-critics reasons to breathe a bit easier.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon applauded “many of the measures [Hagel] recommends, like transforming outdated bureaucracies and cumbersome acquisition processes, are long overdue and should be executed absent the military’s current resource crisis.”

If you’re waiting for a but from the HASC chairman, here it is:

“As encouraging as many of the secretary’s remarks are, the fact that he is being driven to consider dramatic reform not because of strategic threats but because of an irrational budgetary environment remains troubling.”

There is plenty of evidence that Hagel would have launched a reform agenda once settling into his E-Ring office regardless of whether the $500 billion, decade-spanning sequestration cut was triggered on March 1.

For instance, even before Hagel appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his now-infamous and tense Jan. 31 confirmation hearing, the nominee was clear he believed the Defense Department’s annual budget is “bloated.” And, thanks to his participation in a Global Zero effort endorsing big U.S. nuclear arms reductions, we all know the former GOP senator from Nebraska is in favor of reducing parts of the American arsenal.

McKeon is the chairman of a panel that has, since Pentagon budgets began growing less quickly late last decade then shrinking during this decade, called for larger and larger defense spending. When reporters ask these hawkish members how much is enough, the answer typically can be summed up with one word: “More.”

Hagel’s message at NDU certainly was no HASC-like, full-throated call for ever-expanding U.S. military budgets:

“In many respects, the biggest long-term fiscal challenge facing the Department is not the flat or declining top-line budget, it is the growing imbalance in where that money is being spent internally. Left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel, and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness – the budget categories that enable the military to be and stay prepared.”

“This exercise [a comprehensive strategy review] is also about matching missions with resources — looking at ends, ways, and means. This effort will by necessity consider big choices that could lead to fundamental change and a further prioritization of the use of our resources.”

The defense spending hawks have a vested political interest in the programs that are slated to one day field replacements for the “aging weapons platforms” Hagel mentioned. The same is true for some of the “structures and institutions” he mentioned. And with the 2014 midterm congressional elections just 18 months away, the political window for personnel and benefits reform already is closing.

All of that makes the military spending hawks leery of Hagel and his reform agenda.

And then are the old-school Republican interventionists, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. On Tuesday, according to Reuters, McCain suggested the United States should get more involved in a French-led effort to defeat al Qaida-affiliated fighters in Mali:

“We will work with the French forces, assess the French and allied forces on the ground, and see to what extent we can provide equipment, training, and technology to rid Mali of these rebels which include al Qaeda.”

The next day, the old friend who was a co-chair of McCain’s 2000 bid for the GOP presidential campaign, described a very different foreign policy philosophy. Hagel dubbed his philosophy “principled realism.”

“The world today is combustible and complex, and America’s responsibilities are as enormous as they are humbling. These challenges to our security and prosperity demand America’s continued global leadership and engagement, and they require a principled realism that is true to our values.

“The United States military remains an essential tool of American power, but one that must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits. Most of the pressing security challenges today have important political, economic, and cultural components, and do not necessarily lend themselves to being resolved by conventional military strength.”

McCain and his interventionist acolytes want to use the American military more extensively in Mali and Syria, and keep it in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. McCain has even talked of a return to Iraq. Hagel clearly is no GOP interventionist.

It became apparent during his confirmation process that Hagel’s views on issues of national defense and foreign policy differ greatly from his former congressional Republican colleagues. After the NDU speech, it’s as clear as the early April blue skies that enveloped Washington as Hagel spoke on Wednesday.

The dueling clocks on Hagel’s tenure as defense secretary and his reform agenda already are ticking. The budget hawks and interventionists cannot block every Hagel plan — but they certainly can make his stint more difficult.

Former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta entered office with congressional goodwill tucked into their back pockets. Hagel lacks that luxury.

His ability to mend fences with the Republican budget hawks and interventionists on Capitol Hill — and them with him, policy-making is a two-way street — in coming weeks and months will offer telling clues about the fate of his reform agenda. And his legacy.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett