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Five things Hagel should do now

Five things Hagel should do now

The Congress has consented, allowing Chuck Hagel to become secretary of defense, but not without badly bruising him along the way. It must also be said, however, that he bruised himself during the confirmation process. The odds now are slim that he will become a strong and capable secretary. In order to boost the odds of his success, he quickly needs to send signals throughout the organization that he can command respect. Here are some suggestions:

Learn to salute. If the picture accompanying Dov’s post is indicative, Hagel’s lost the knack since the days when he owed salutes. A crisp salute is a small but totemic thing. It conveys that you understand the culture and the institution. Despite his prior service, there are grave doubts about whether Hagel actually gets it. Because people are watching carefully and taking measure of the new boss, small gestures early on set the tone for a secretary. Les Aspin famously dismissed the ceremonial guard outside his office (which was about respect, not protection), kept people waiting, and his transition team told the military that "there’s a new sheriff in town," instead of co-opting Colin Powell’s Joint Staff. The first day of Bill Perry’s tenure he ran meetings on time that concluded with decisions and applicable guidance that helped people predict the secretary’s future judgments, and you could feel the building relax after the erratic and undisciplined tenure of Les Aspin. After Hagel’s bungling performance during confirmation, little gestures of competence would send a valuable message to the institution.  

Treat it like a business. DOD is a $600 billion a year operation with a highly-valued brand, a platform on which other businesses rely, and a deadly serious purpose. The administration did Hagel no favors installing him as secretary just before its budget is submitted. After alienating so much of the Congress, he will have to defend a budget he didn’t put together. Even someone much more substantive than he would have a difficult time quickly mastering that brief and disciplining the building to keep a common front as significant cuts are imposed. If he cannot do so, the damage will be irreparable. The administration has given the impression it cares more about social issues in the military than it does about the core business of winning the country’s wars, and that makes it harder to manage the military on other issues. Putting the nuts and bolts of effective management at the center of his early efforts would send a calming signal and buy him the benefit of the doubt for later.

Repair relations with members of Congress. It is an often overlooked fact that Congress really runs American defense policy. The Senate has abrogated its responsibilities to authorize and appropriate money for the past three years, and 41 members of the Senate did not consent to his appointment; those are strong headwinds. He needs to win them over, otherwise he cannot make a success of his tenure. He needs them to give him money, latitude to reprogram, to enact policies, to side with him over the chiefs when they make end-runs to the Hill. All the time-honored tactics should be employed: breakfast every week with the Big Four appropriators and authorizers, travel with him to their districts and to places that give them campaign fodder, phone calls to share news before it breaks, jobs for members of their staffs, naming anything that needs naming after them. As the secretary with the greatest Senate opposition to his appointment in the history of his position, he needs to do it more, better, and faster than other secretaries have.  

Get the chiefs out of the budget fight. One of the most interesting things about this round of budget squabbles is that the active involvement of the chiefs does not appear to have changed a single vote in Congress. They are impotent to affect attitudes on a major national security issue. The chiefs loudly telling Congress that the cuts will be destructive has been seen not as our protectors sounding the alarm, but as shameless pandering by an over-fed bureaucracy that is exposing itself for the president’s benefit. It goes without saying that this is terrible for the military’s standing in society. President Obama is importantly to blame for this. During the election he ridiculed Mitt Romney for wanting to increase defense spending, repeatedly insisting that his opponent "would throw money at the chiefs they don’t even want!" That created a sense in the broader public that our defense is well-funded. As a result, the chiefs arguments now that the saying the sky is falling seem politicized. If the chiefs credibility is that low, the secretary should disengage them from the fight. He should instead become the lead advocate, making their arguments and shielding them from direct involvement while they engage privately with legislators.

Get out of Washington. Visiting the war zones, visiting bases, visiting troops engaged in training other militaries is part of the secretary’s job — outreach to his constituents and being close to their concerns. The importance of fights in Washington will seem paramount (as they always do), but Hagel is unlikely to be the difference between a policy being adopted or not.  First, because he clearly shares the President’s views. Second, because the administration has already made its major policy decisions. And third, because he’s hardly the towering presence of a Hillary Clinton on Bob Gates that must be taken into account. That frees him up to get out of Washington and see how the rest of the country and the rest of the world view our choices — two elements the discussion in Washington too often lacks. Plus, it will remind him of the everyday goodness of the young men and women who choose to put themselves in harm’s way for our country. That cannot help but strengthen any secretary.