By Chuck Conconi
It’s not a big step to go from the United States Senate to Secretary of Defense. It is, however, an unheard of journey for a military enlisted man to become Secretary of Defense, even if that individual had been a two-term United States Senator.
That is one of the things so impressive about President Obama’s decision to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, to be his Secretary of Defense. If he is confirmed by his former colleagues in the senate, the former Army sergeant will be the first enlisted man to serve in that cabinet post. And that means that he will join the new Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is also a Vietnam War combat veteran. Kerry was an officer.
There are those who would argue that someone who understands war, especially from the level of the enlisted grunt, is important at a time when wars seem less heroic or patriotic and when the nation has to look hard at the increasing number of military commitments across the world with an over-committed military and a shrinking defense budget.
In response to a questionnaire from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hagel answered his critics who don’t seem to feel he has enough bellicosity to head the Defense Department when he wrote: “I understand what it is like to be a soldier. I also understand what happens when there is poor morale and discipline among the troops and a lack of clear objectives, intelligence, and command and control from Washington. I believe that experience will help me as Secretary of Defense to ensure we maintain the best fighting force in the world, protect our men and women in uniform and ensure that we are cautious and certain when contemplating the use of force.”
While the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska is respected and well-liked among his senate colleagues, several of them announced they would vote against his confirmation even before the president nominated him. Generally, senators want to easily confirm each other for cabinet posts. Hagel, however, has been scrutinized as being too critical of Israel, soft on Iran and insensitive on gay rights.
At his, at times, contentious hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, Hagel said he was committed to maintaining a strong American role in the world and to maintaining the strongest military in the world. To his critics, he talked about his long, open public record, including 3,000 votes. He argued: “No one individual vote, quote or statement defines me, my belief or my record.”
One of the angriest confrontations at the hearing came from Hagel’s former senate colleague, friend and also a Vietnam veteran, Sen. John McCain. Hagel’s performance under his persistent questioning on whether he felt his opposition to the military siege was right or wrong, seemed at time hesitant and not helpful. McCain made it clear that he found Hagel’s responses evasive.
McCain said: “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether I vote for your confirmation or not.”
It looks now, however, that Hagel’s confirmation will not be easy. Hagel, however, may well be the man that Obama needs at a time of expanding military commitments across the world with over-committed military forces and a significantly reduced defense budget. Hagel is known as being blunt and for speaking his mind. it won’t hurt to have a former enlisted combat veteran advising the president, who also understands the terrible responsibility of asking men to die in combat.