Hagel’s Revenge

How Obama's new Pentagon chief can get back at his Republican enemies.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Since President Obama nominated him to become the nation’s 24th secretary of defense, Republicans, particularly those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have impugned Senator Chuck Hagel’s policy positions, his character, and even his patriotism. Last week, Senate Republicans filibustered his nomination, thus delaying his confirmation at least another 10 days.

Senator James Inhofe, the committee’s ranking member, claimed that Hagel’s policy work is out of the mainstream and that he subscribes to a worldview predicated on appeasing our adversaries and shunning our friends. To prove this claim, Inhofe noted that Hagel’s nomination has been endorsed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, arguing that "you cannot get any cozier than that."

The newly-minted senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, argued that Hagel’s confirmation will make military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely by encouraging Iran to speed up its nuclear program. Cruz also accused Hagel of getting cozy with terrorists and countries that oppose U.S. interests, even demanding to know if any of his income over the last five years could have come "directly from North Korea."

Finally, in their questioning during his confirmation hearing, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, haranguing and interrupting, treated Senator Hagel as if he were on trial, rather than a distinguished public servant and war hero once again answering his nation’s call to serve. To his credit, McCain did chastise his Republican colleagues for impugning Hagel’s character and his integrity in the committee meeting to vote on his nomination. But that didn’t make up for the way he treated Hagel during the hearings.

While Hagel had to play defense during the hearing, that will change when he gets to the Pentagon. Based upon his past experience in business, the non-profit world, and the Senate, he will be a take-charge leader, and one of his challenges will be reducing defense spending. And his choices could hurt the constituents of the very officials who have done the most to hurt him.

Neither Hagel, nor any secretary of defense, can close military bases unilaterally, but he can have a large impact on which bases are part of the list that is sent to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. In 1995, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry resisted pressure from some in the Air Force to place two major logistics bases in Texas and California on the list. When the commission overruled Perry and put them back on the list for closure, Perry mitigated the economic impact on the states by privatizing the bases. Similarly, even before unveiling his list in 2005, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made it known that Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota would be on the closure list. Although the commission refused to support this, the commotion surrounding the decision undermined Minority Leader Senator Tom Daschle’s 2004 reelection bid, which he lost.

Secretaries can also exert significant economic influence on states and districts by transferring units from one base to another or by disestablishing units altogether. Secretary Gates moved the homeport of a carrier from Norfolk, Virginia to Jacksonville, Florida and decided where in the country units being withdrawn from Japan or Germany would be relocated. Secretary Panetta tried to disband several Air National Guard units.

Finally, the secretary of defense can have a large economic impact through the decisions he makes on major weapons programs. During his four years as secretary, Dick Cheney killed a hundred major weapons programs, including the Navy’s carrier-based bomber, the A-12; he scaled back the development of programs including the C-17; and he halted production of the B-2 bomber at 20 planes rather than 132. The cumulative effect of those decisions ran to billions and billions of dollars.

In 2009, Secretary Gates stopped production of the F-22 at 187 planes instead of the 347 the Air Force wanted, he stopped production of the DDG-1000 at three ships instead of the 32 the Navy wanted, and he accelerated production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Secretary Panetta delayed production of the Navy’s new ballistic missile submarine and the Navy’s version of the F-35, and he allowed it to continue procuring the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.

Secretaries also have a big role in deciding which companies get to build the weapon system in the first place. Secretary Robert McNamara overruled the military brass and awarded the contract for the TFX or F-111 to General Dynamics rather than Boeing. In the mid-1990s, Secretary Perry awarded the contract for the F-35 to Lockheed rather than McDonnell Douglas. And Secretary Gates awarded the contract for the KC-46 tanker to Boeing rather than EADS.

Of course, Congress can overturn any of these decisions — as it did with Secretary Cheney’s attempt to kill the V-22 and Panetta’s attempt to disband several Air National Guard units. But for the most part, the decisions of the secretary stand. So if Secretary Hagel wants to settle scores, he will have plenty of opportunities, particularly in an age of austerity.

All of the senators who demeaned Hagel during the hearings and committee discussions represent states that are heavily dependent on the Pentagon for their economic well-being. For example, Senator Cruz’s Texas has nearly 200,000 military personnel stationed at some 15 bases or military installations. Moreover, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons system ever developed by the Pentagon, is built in the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth. Much of the V-22 program is also built in Texas. According to Deloitte, the defense and aerospace industry payroll in Texas is about $7 billion and accounts for roughly 340,000 jobs (Deloitte’s methodology includes direct, indirect, and induced employment — an analytical leap we have objected to in the past but which Cruz no doubt endorses).

Similarly, Senator Inhofe’s Oklahoma has about 50,000 military personnel at five major bases. Senator Graham’s South Carolina has 65,000 military people stationed at eight facilities. And Senator McCain’s Arizona has 40,000 personnel at seven facilities, and its defense industry payroll amounts to $4 billion.

Fortunately for his political opponents, Senator Hagel would never stoop to their level. Hagel has repeatedly demonstrated his integrity. He left college to volunteer to serve in Vietnam (a conflict that Cheney, who dubbed Hagel a "substandard candidate," managed to dodge), and he resigned from the number two position at the Department of Veterans Affairs because his boss refused to deal with the effects of Agent Orange and called Vietnam veterans crybabies. Hagel went on to save the USO from bankruptcy and represent his state of Nebraska in the Senate for 12 years with distinction. Given this record, Senator Hagel can be depended upon to put his country first, unlike many of his critics.

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