I realize Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is reading off a script, has little if no latitude to make policy and is not trusted by members of Congress. Still. When he goes out in public to deliver a speech he really needs to step it up.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Jim Watson/Associated Press) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Jim Watson/Associated Press)

He appeared Monday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Louisville, Kentucky. After his introductory small talk he got to the nub of the matter:

Sequestration is an irresponsible process, and it is terribly damaging.  I hope that our leaders in Washington will eventually come to policy resolution, a resolution that stops sequestration.  But all of us who have the responsibility of leading our Defense Department cannot lead the Department of Defense based on hope, based on “we think,” based on “maybe.” We have to prepare our institution for whatever comes.  To that end, these cuts are forcing us to make tough but necessary decisions to prioritize missions and capabilities around our core responsibility, which is the security of our country.

We already know the White House was the source of the irresponsible process, but that was undertaken before Hagel arrived at the Pentagon. Fine, but why has he not gone to the president to make the case against what his predecessor calls “devastating” cuts? Why is he providing cover for cuts which, among other things, force our people to endure excessive combat time? (“I met a First Sergeant who told me that in Afghanistan, he froze up and became overwhelmed by anxiety. He couldn’t command. He had lost his ability to command. I asked him how many deployments he had. He told me he was on his fifth consecutive combat tour when this happened. When you push human beings this hard, they break.”)

His announcement that gargantuan cuts require “tough but necessary decisions” is, to put it mildly, circular reasoning. Why are the decisions tough? Because they are made not on national security grounds, but because the president looks at defense spending cuts and tax hikes as the means by which he increases domestic spending. They are necessary because the president refuses to agree to alternate cuts the House has already passed.

But it gets worse. He declares that “to implement the steep and abrupt reductions that have been required under sequestration, we’ve had to make very difficult decisions to reduce, stop and defer many activities and programs that keep our military prepared to fight — including training, maintenance, and modernization investments. Readiness cuts aren’t always visible, but these cuts are having and will continue to have very damaging effects. . . . These kinds of gaps and shortages could lead to a force that is inadequately trained, ill-equipped, and unable to fulfill required missions.” He adds, “You cannot buy back readiness.”

But you can avoid hollowing out our military by working with Congress to avoid those cuts that have no military justification.

Like the president he serves, Hagel appears to be a spectator in his own administration. He says things like: “If trends continue, we could ultimately be left with a much smaller force that is well-compensated but poorly trained and equipped. That would be unacceptable.” You wonder if any of the political appointees in this administration understand the import of what they are doing. The “trend” is of their own making, and the results may take years to undo.

What is missing from Hagel’s speech is any notion about how he is making the Pentagon better or addressing our threats more effectively. He can’t talk about that, you see, because all of this is about budget-cutting and not improving national security. He sounds like the OMB director, not the person in charge of the lion’s share of our national security apparatus. And hence the problem.