Some tough questions for Hagel


Sen. Chuck Hagel speaks with President Obama, after the announcement of his nomination as the Secretary of Defense. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Walter Pincus
Reporter January 21, 2013

Senators next week will pose questions to Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of defense. Hopefully, they will pose more than the gotcha questions that require the former senator from Nebraska to explain his past statements about Iran, Israel, gays and the “bloated” Pentagon budget.

Those exchanges, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, will make the nightly TV news shows, be reported in newspaper stories and become fodder for the talking heads of cable and the Internet’s bloggers. But Hagel’s answers won’t surprise the senators because he will have shared them in private visits he’s planning with all the panel members before the Jan. 31 session.

As a former senator, Hagel knows the game and is working to speak to almost all 100 senators, at least by phone, before his hearing.

The confirmation hearing’s purpose should be more than showing how much support and opposition he has. It can be an opportunity for Hagel to explain his views on other defense policies, and for senators to educate him about what else is bothering them — and even to hear their ideas.

Last Thursday, at the U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza, Italy, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta laid out what could be a primer on issues that Hagel should be asked about.

The questions could start with how Hagel sees reaching what Panetta described as leaner, smaller, more agile forces on the cutting edge of technology that have “the ability to deploy quickly, the ability to engage an enemy on a fast basis.”

One hot potato: The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission statute would require Hagel as defense secretary to propose changes to the pay, benefits, pensions and health care of future service members — as the cost of the current all-volunteer force appears to be unsustainable.

Does Hagel believe, at a minimum, that retirees should pay higher fees for their health-care benefits, a change sought by the Obama administration?

Panetta said, “We’re going to need to invest in the ability to mobilize quickly, to maintain a strong Reserve, [and] to maintain a strong National Guard.”

Does Hagel see increasing the size of the Guard and Reserves as a way of reducing the more costly active volunteer force?

Panetta stated that under the new Obama strategy, “We’ve got to be able to defeat more than one enemy at a time,” positing “a war in Korea and, at the same time, having to deal with somebody that closes the Strait of Hormuz,” meaning Iran.

Iran has a larger population than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, so does Hagel agree with Panetta that “We’ve got to be able to fight in both places, and we have that capability, and we have to maintain that?”

Given the world situation, why not ask Hagel about his criteria for recommending to President Obama when to introduce U.S. military forces into life-threatening operations? When does he believe a situation calls for the United States to supply logistical support (Libya and now apparently Mali), and when would he propose boots on the ground?

He also should be asked about what Panetta called the concept of “force projection to those areas where we face the biggest threats . . . the Asia Pacific region and . . . in the Middle East, confronting the challenges there, from Iran and the kind of Middle East turmoil that we see.”

Does force projection mean maintaining U.S. military bases around the world? Panetta spoke of needing “a presence in Europe; we need to have a presence in Latin America; we need to have a presence in Africa.” But he also spoke of doing it through partnerships, alliances and rotational deployments where military units “will go into an area, exercise, train, assist countries to develop their capabilities so that they can help provide for their own security.”

As I wrote last week, the United States for the past 10 years tried to do just that in West African countries, including Mali, where it apparently had little effect in halting jihadist and gangster and insurgent elements.

What is Hagel’s view on solving that problem? Does he believe U.S. support for a government stops when its leaders turn corrupt or become dictators?

There also are the issues related to U.S. combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a process already underway. Obama will soon announce the pace under which they will depart. The United States will face more than the issue of the size of any U.S. military units that remain in Afghanistan after 2014. There also will be the issue of those units’ status vis-a-vis the Afghan government and its laws.

The Obama administration was sharply criticized, primarily by Republicans, for not successfully negotiating a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq that would have provided immunity for U.S. service personnel from criminal prosecution by Iraq. Similar negotiations are underway with the Afghans and Hagel should be asked his views about the necessity for such immunity.

At stake is not just a continuing U.S. military presence to prevent the return of al-Qaeda training camps. There’s also the issue of bases in that country to deal with the threat from al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in nearby Northwest Pakistan. The United States has spent at least $300 million building facilities at Bagram air base and at Kandahar to carry out operations. What does Hagel see as an alternative if no agreement is reached with Kabul?

Panetta told the troops in Italy, “The greatest threat I face right now, and the military officers that I serve with agree . . . is continuing uncertainty in Washington” about the budget. He said he saw March as a “perfect storm” when fiscal 2013 funds run out and deep cuts could occur.

He then compared the risks the military takes with what faces “elected officials.” He meant members of Congress who “we’re asking . . . to take a small part of the risk that . . . they’ll [anger] some constituents.”

Panetta said, as he has before, “I keep telling them . . . if I’ve got men and women in uniform that put their lives on the line in order to fight for this country, you can — you can have a small bit of the courage they have to do what you have to do.”

Will Hagel, too, make that challenge to Congress?

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

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