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

Video Protests Continue in Ferguson, Spread to Other US Cities

Missouri officials say deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers helps curb second night of rampant arson and looting in Midwestern town More

Video Ebola, Crackdown on Illegals Hit Business in Guangzhou

Chinese city has largest community of Africans in Asia More

Video Legendary Lebanese Actress, Singer Sabah Dies at 87

Music and film diva, affectionately called 'Sabbouha' by millions of her fans, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London, Olympia in Paris, Sydney Opera House in Sydney 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.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid