News / USA

The Chuck Hagel Controversy and the Limits of Secretarial Power

OBAMA-NOMINATIONS/
OBAMA-NOMINATIONS/
Cecily Hilleary
It has been said that confirmation hearings are one of Washington’s favorite blood sports. That certainly appears to be the case with former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for secretary of defense. Most analysts agree Hagel will likely be confirmed -- but not until he has gone through some tough questioning by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his positions on Middle East issues, in particular, Israel. Much less has been said about job of defense secretary and how much influence Hagel might have over policy, if he is conformed.

Controversy

Hagel has made statements and taken positions on Middle East issues that some groups say make him unsuitable to head the Pentagon.  For example:

Hagel co-signed a letter to Obama in 2009 that critics say urged the U.S. to deal directly with Hamas, a designated terrorist group. The letter asked Obama to “shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might clarify the movement’s view and test its behavior.”

Hagel has historically advocated  engagement with Iran and cautioned Washington against “giving them the back of our hand.”

In 2006, Middle East scholar and policy advisor Aaron David Miller interviewed Hagel for a book he was writing. Hagel’s comments about the “Jewish lobby” in Washington generated criticism that Hagel is either anti-Semitic, anti-Israel or completely uninformed:


"The political reality is that you intimidate a lot—not you, but the Jewish lobby--intimidates a lot of people up here. And again, I've always argued against some of the dumb things they do, because I don't think it's in the interest of Israel.  I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel.   

"Now, everyone has a right to lobby; that’s as it should be. 'Come see your Senator, Congressman, if you can get the guy to sign your letter, great, wonderful.  But as I reminded some of the—not too long ago—in fact, it was a group I was speaking to in New York, and we got into a kind of interesting give and take on Iran. And a couple of these guys said, ‘Well, we should just go into Iran. And I said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting thought; we’re doing so well in Iraq.’ And I said it would really help Israel.

"And this guy kept pushing and pushing.  And he alluded to the fact that, well, maybe I wasn’t supporting Israel enough or something. And I just said let me clear something up here, in case there is any doubt. I said, ‘I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.’ I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States — not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that. Now, I know most senators don’t talk like I do.
"

Hagel as Poster Child

“What Chuck Hagel said got a lot of people angry and upset,” Miller told VOA.  “It was impolitic and it pushes bad buttons. Some might argue that it reflects a deeper problem, but I don’t see that.”

Miller characterizes these and other Hagel remarks as “completely out of sync with American policy,” but doesn’t believe this alone is at the heart of the controversy.

“It’s also about the reality that the Republicans--or at least certain outspoken, influential Republicans…look at Hagel as the ‘poster child’ for everything they don’t like about Obama’s foreign policy,” Miller said. In particular, Miller cites Iran [Hagel has previously promoted engagement with, not sanctions against, Tehran]; a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan [both Hagel and Obama support] and cuts in the defense budget [both Hagel and Obama support]. 

The absence of a concentrated diplomatic effort to confront this issue [Iran] is an abdication of our responsibility for our nation's security and for world leadership

The Role of a Secretary

But Hagel’s nomination also raises questions about the job of defense secretary, which is both advisory and administrative. The Pentagon chief advises the president on military and security matters. He also evaluates plans and implements related budgets, policies and procedures. 

Mark Rom is an associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He says a defense secretary’s power depends on a lot of factors. 

“He has the formal statutory powers given to him by the constitution and by law, but his actual ability to exercise those powers really depends on the political context—his relationship with the president, his relationship with the armed military leaders, his relationship with Congress,” Rom said.

Rom says the president and Hagel agree on three important issues:  The Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Iran and defense cuts.  “So that will increase his power, but note that doesn’t do anything—the power would be in just doing what the president wants him to do, rather than exercising power independently from the president. If the presidential power goes down, his goes down, because they are tied together on foreign policy,” Rom said.

If, on the other hand, a defense secretary opposed the president on issues, how much power would he possess? “It depends on how persuasive he could be in convincing Obama that Obama should change his position. It doesn’t strike me that the positions Obama has have been arrived at lightly,” Rom said.

Going Native

Rom says there is another factor to consider—the so-called “lifers” at the Pentagon, i.e., career military. “They have interests that tend to promote what they believe to be the Department of Defense interests: Larger budgets, more flexibility, greater willingness to defer to the generals on policy decisions.”

In other words, military leaders try to persuade the secretary to see things their way.  “And secretaries do tend to ‘go native,’ that is they’re at the Pentagon all the time, not the White House. They are constantly being talked to by Department of Defense’s permanent folks. And it’s hard not to become sympathetic with people who have your ear all the time,” Rom said.

Because Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, Rom believes he is not likely to ignore the opinions of top brass. At the same time, Rom says the defense secretary will also listen to voices in Congress. “They’re the ones who actually give him his budget.”

Douglas Feith, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for National Security Strategies in Washington, D.C., disagrees. 

“I think the influences of secretaries of defense vary over the years, depending on the secretaries, on their relationships with the presidents,” Feith said. “It’s possible that a secretary of defense can be enormously influential in shaping the options for the president.”
 
Damage Control

Hagel says his remarks about Israel have been distorted and that he has demonstrated “unequivocal, total support for Israel. 

On January 24, 2011, Hagel and 13 others signed off on a letter to Obama asking the US to “encourage the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas on terms compatible with…UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338,” resolutions which call for the peacefully solving the Arab-Israeli conflict through territorial compromise.

Achieving a lasting resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is the best means of pushing political and religious extremists to the margins.
Regarding Iran, Hagel now says he supports Obama's position that a military strike is a viable, last-resort option.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reports that Hagel has said he also believes that a military strike should remain as an option for stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

On other issues, President Obama will soon decide on withdrawing some or all of the 66,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan. The White House deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, says the Pentagon is considering a range of options, including complete withdrawal. Meanwhile, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan wants to keep at least 20,000 troops there beyond the deadline.  

Hudson Institute’s Feith thinks Hagel would go along with the president on Afghan troop withdrawals, “although there were some statements by Leon Panetta, who took a leading, visible position against excessive defense cuts. I don’t know whether Hagel would do the same.”

Feith also worries a Hagel appointment would send the wrong message to Tehran, i.e., that Washington is backing down on the nuclear issue. 

This week, Hagel will meet one-on-one with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and others to address some of their concerns.  Despite strong opposition, the belief in Washington is that if Obama wants Hagel, he is as good as confirmed.  After all, Hagel is a Republican.  As Rom puts it, why would the Republican Party want to prevent one of its own from serving in such a high office?

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Maxaron
January 14, 2013 1:08 PM
It appears that Chuck Hagel's honest assessment of his positions are unwelcome to the warhawks and neocons. Tough!.....they will get over it. Finally a breath of fresh air from an honest man.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs