News / USA

The Chuck Hagel Controversy and the Limits of Secretarial Power

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.


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?

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This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.

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