January 8, 2013

This morning the Post makes an excellent point about Chuck Hagel’s role in the Obama administration. If confirmed by the Senate, his job will be to shepherd the Pentagon through the “nearly $500 billion in reductions to the defense budget over the next decade,” and likely more, given the current appetite for deficit reduction.

First, a little context. Over the last decade, the United States defense budget has ballooned to accommodate the war on terror, as well as our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the September 11th attacks, Defense Department spending has risen from just under $300 billion in 2001, to $527.5 billion for the current fiscal year. If you include the wars, Pentagon spending rises to $616.5 billion, or nearly 4 percent of GDP. By contrast, at the peak of Cold War spending during the Reagan administration, the Pentagon’s budget topped out at 6 percent of GDP.

But with the wars winding down, and Washington’s current focus on debt reduction, there have been moves to reduce defense spending from its current highs. The 2011 Budget Control Act, for example, will rein in Pentagon spending on military bases at home and abroad, and the sequester — passed as part of the “fiscal cliff” — contains $1 trillion in defense cuts over the next decade. Even if the sequester is averted, odds are good that lawmakers will find further cuts to make to the Pentagon. And indeed, Hagel’s background — in 2011, he told the Financial Times that the Defense Department was “bloated” — makes him a good choice for implementing this course of action.

With all of that in mind, it’s no surprise that Republicans are eager to derail the former senator’s nomination. By choosing Hagel to lead the Pentagon through its period of belt tightening, Obama helps creates the perception of bipartisan support for defense cuts. It gives him cover that the GOP doesn’t want to provide, and challenges their debt-cutting bona fides. After all, if Republicans are so eager to reduce deficits, they should support sensible cuts to the Pentagon’s budget.

Which is to say that if Hagel is confirmed, his nomination will have been a savvy political choice by the president. Whether or not those budget cuts will happen, of course, is another question entirely.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.