An image issue for Chuck Hagel

Walter Pincus
Reporter February 11, 2013

A Senate Armed Services Committee vote Tuesday for Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary will not end his image issues. At the confirmation hearing on Jan. 31, Hagel appeared to be unprepared and open to bullying.

I’m not saying the former Nebraska senator’s lackluster performance will keep him from being confirmed as the next defense secretary by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Enough of his former colleagues will accept the idea that he didn’t want to be confrontational or that he was having a bad day.

The people Hagel must worry about are the men and women of the Defense Department for whom the hearing was a first look at their next boss in action. It wasn’t a promising start.

If there is one characteristic that marks the military it is preparation — careful planning, covering all contingencies, firmness, clear questions and answers, personal discipline.

Being prepared is a military habit practiced for that moment when lives may depend on it. It’s a quality expected in its leaders.

The late Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) chaired the House Armed Services Committee when in 1992 President Clinton asked him to be defense secretary. Aspin was extremely bright and a good politician. But he was casual, if not sloppy, not just in dress but in his habits. He lacked discipline. Meetings with him could start late and go on forever. He loved to explore every relevant aspect of an issue, and even those that weren’t relevant.

As one of Aspin’s long-term friends, I was among those who warned him that he had to shape up if he took the Pentagon job. His every step would be weighed by the military, from the Joint Chiefs on down the chain of command.

I was sitting in the stands at Fort Myer during Aspin’s welcoming ceremony in 1993. I will never forget the murmurs among the officers and enlisted men around me when Aspin, slouching and out of step, reviewed the troops.

Almost immediately he faced complicated issues, but Aspin’s easy-going style never gained much respect within “the building” — the Pentagon. Criticized for Somalia decisions and troubled by a heart problem, he resigned in early 1994.

The irony about Hagel’s hearing performance is that it hid his feisty personality and left the impression he could be pushed around. More than a half-dozen times he apologized for making perfectly acceptable statements, sometimes not bothering to correct senators who took those statements out of context.

He seemed to forget — or never realized — that he had that equally important audience at the Pentagon and on military bases around the world.

Too bad John Brennan testified after Hagel. The nominee to head the CIA clearly had that agency’s staff in mind Thursday as he sat before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Several times he corrected or challenged senators. He told Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) he disagreed “vehemently” with the conclusion that Brennan had leaked classified information in 2012. With Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Brennan questioned the accuracy of a news story that was the basis for Coats’s questions.

Then there was Brennan’s refusal to describe waterboarding as torture. It was one of the few times he appeared awkward. He called waterboarding “reprehensible . . . something that should not be done.” But his refusal to say it was torture reflected his understanding that the word is still sensitive within the CIA. Officers and interrogators acted as they did because the Bush Justice Department told them it was legal activity, something Brennan referenced.

David Petraeus scored points with CIA staffers during his June 2011 hearing to be director, when he urged Congress, to take “the rear view mirrors off the bus, with respect to certain actions.”

Can Hagel recover? That could be more difficult because he is following Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, two men who quickly gained the loyalty of subordinates. They also had previous service in senior government positions — and each served as CIA director before being nominated to lead defense.

Hagel will have an early opportunity to show he’s up to the job. A series of tough issues is waiting at the Pentagon: What’s the department’s position on arms to the Syrian opposition, the number of U.S. troops still in Afghanistan, the capabilities for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, pay and benefits for future service personnel, the number of F-35s or deployed nuclear warheads needed over the next decade ?

First, however, are the present and future defense budgets. Luckily, Panetta and his team have made some preparations for the potential of sequester — the across-the-board cut of $40 billion-plus over the next seven months. If it happens it will be up to Hagel and his team to come up with a recovery plan.

A great help will be a decision by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to stay on and provide some continuity.

But in his first meetings, Hagel will have to show that he’s done his homework and that he’s prepared. He will have to make his questions clear and succinct and not be afraid to say he needs more information.

He served in the Army and must show he cares for others who serve.

Discipline is what will be required of the new defense secretary.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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