THE PUBLIC EYE: Chuck Hagel: Obama’s Hatchet Man?

By Bob Burnett
Friday February 01, 2013 - 12:42:00 PM

Even though he’s one of their own, many Republicans oppose President Obama’s Secretary of Defense nominee, former Senator Chuck Hagel. GOP leaders fear Hagel will be Obama’s hatchet man, leading the effort to shrink the defense budget.

Hagel is a Vietnam War veteran, an enlisted man who rose to the rank of sergeant as an infantry squad leader. A two-term Republican Senator, Hagel began as a hawk but his ardor for war diminished after he understood the mismanagement of the war in Iraq. In 2005, Hagel compared the Iraq conflict to the War in Vietnam.

If Hagel is confirmed he will oversee a bitter fight on the trajectory of the DOD budget. The 2012 budget was $646 billion – roughly 20 percent of the total US budget. But in 2013 sequestration would cut $55 Billion from the proposed budget. The current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said such a cut would be “a disaster for national defense.” Nonetheless, many Washington pundits doubt that there would be a dramatic impact, pointing to waste in defense spending and noting the US is winding down two wars. 

In the President’s proposed 2013 budget the defense allocation is $701 billion, the largest discretionary category after entitlements at $2.217 trillion (56 percent). Since America has left Iraq and plans to leave Afghanistan in 2014, it seems logical that the US could reduce the size of its military forces. This is what happened after the end of the War in Vietnam and the end of the Cold War. But when it comes to the defense budget, deliberations are seldom rational.  

There are several reasons for the contentious nature of defense budget deliberations. One is that US defense allocations are so enormous their size warps perspective. Writing in The New Yorker, journalist Jill Lepore observed, “Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year—more, in adjusted dollars, than at any time since the Allies were fighting the Axis.” The Council on Foreign Relations reported that in 2011 the United States had 4 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 22 percent of the gross domestic product, yet was responsible for 42 percent of military spending. Lepore observed that what drives our defense budget is “the idea that the manifest destiny of the United States is to patrol the world…six decades after V-J day nearly three hundred thousand American troops are stationed overseas including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy.” Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul claimed the US military operates out of 900 bases deployed in 130 nations. 

Defense budget discussions are heavily politicized. Ever since 1952, when Republicans won the presidency by accusing Democrats of being soft on Communism and having “lost China,” Republicans have dogmatically advocated for gigantic defense budgets. Barack Obama is the first Democratic President in sixty years to have unassailable credentials on national security. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama was seen as stronger on defense than Mitt Romney. Obama won the final debate, on foreign policy and national security, because Romney couldn’t differentiate himself from the President. 

Another reason for the contentious nature of defense budget discussions is that sixty-three years of ever-increasing defense budgets has fomented a military-industrial complex that constantly lobbies for billion-dollar defense projects. This has led to a bloated budget and an overabundance of generals. When senior officers do retire, they quite often join the staff of a military contractor and become lobbyists. Meanwhile, Senators and Representatives fight for military projects for their constituents believing that it will help employment and increase their prospects for reelection. 

Further complicating discussion of the defense budget is the fact the war on terror has no concrete objectives. President Bush, likened it to a war on tyranny, stating "We will stay on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home." But the United States has made great progress decimating Al Qaeda – an estimated 75 percent of their leadership has been killed and most drone strikes kill Al Qaeda foot soldiers (or civilians).  

Whenever defense budget reductions are proposed, generals and congressmen warn us, “The world continues to be a dangerous place.” They point out threats such as Iran and North Korea to justify the proposed budget. But what’s not discussed is why the United States has to continue to be the world’s police force. For example, why does the belligerency of North Korea have to be our problem? Why can’t it be China’s problem?  

The defense budget should be cut. But when it comes to taking on the defense establishment, President Obama has been timid. He needs someone to take the lead for him, a decorated military veteran with perspective. Chuck Hagel fits the bill to be Obama’s hatchet man. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at