Chuck Hagel, the SecDef Candidate Who Wants a Pared-Down Pentagon

Bloomberg reports that former Sen. Chuck Hagel is the leading candidate to replace Leon Panetta in Defense. As scoops go, it’s not too shocking. It had been reported for weeks that Hagel was being vetted for… something or other. The rumor mill was spinning fast enough for some predictable articles about Hagel and Israel to start getting published.

It’s good to focus on that, because the top line of the story – “Republican considered for Defense post” – doesn’t tell us much. Sure, if he becomes SecDef, Hagel follows in the tradition of William Cohen and Robert Gates as a Republican appointed to (or kept in) Defense by a Democratic president. But on a couple of issues, Hagel is to Panetta’s left.

- In 2009, after the Senate, Hagel was arguing that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable, and a surge there would be as pointless as a surge in Vietnam in 1967. “Iraq and Afghanistan are not America’s to win or lose,” he wrote. “Win what? We can help them buy time or develop, but we cannot control their fates. There are too many cultural, ethnic and religious dynamics at play in these regions for any one nation to control.”

- In 2011, as soon as the sequester became a possibility, Hagel was arguing that the military budget needed to be cut. “The Defense Department, I think, in many ways, has become bloated,” he said. “In many ways I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”

In the second case, Hagel directly contradicts Panetta, who’s been warning of devastation from that sequester – and has been constantly quoted by Republicans.

You see why it’s an attractive nomination. It might be twinned with a Susan Rice nomination to state, which would put Republicans in a doubly awkward position – explaining why this Republican nominee ws not good enough, but why they still preferred the Republican to the Democrat they were being asked to swallow. After he gets the job, though, does he have the political skill to demand or defend these cuts and these drawdowns? Hagel-the-pundit was always more impressive than Hagel-the-operator.

UPDATE: Justin Snow explores an angle that didn’t occur to me, what with all this focus on sequesters. Hagel has never been any good on gay rights.

Although Hagel earned a reputation as a moderate during his years in the Senate, his record on LGBT rights is in line with some of the most conservative members of the Republican Party. He consistently voted against legislation that would have expanded hate-crime protections to LGBT Americans. According to the Human Rights Campaign Congressional Scorecard, he earned a 0 percent for the 107th, 108th and 109th sessions of Congress… Hagel voiced opposition to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1999, stating, “The U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment.”