The debate over the wisdom of appointing former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense is well under way. But rather than engaging in a blow-by-blow debate with Hagel's detractors, I'd like to look at the positive case for his appointment.
First and most importantly, we need a new secretary of defense who is willing to honestly reassess the role of military force in a rapidly changing world. Hagel is up to the task, as indicated by his sharp critiques of the nature and scope of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel forcefully expressed his skepticism about open-ended military commitments in an August 2011 interview with the Financial Times, which is well worth reading in its entirety. After warning of the dangers of getting "bogged down" in Iraq, Hagel got down to the main point -- that we can't use military force as an all-purpose tool to shape political outcomes in other countries. Arguing that wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan are unsustainable, he asserted that "we've got to get out of those wars" and let the people in those countries "decide what they want."
A second point, related to the first, is that a new secretary of defense must be able not only to cut waste at the Pentagon, but also to look for more substantial savings tied to a reassessment of the United States' global role. Hagel has taken flak from neo-conservatives and other advocates of military overspending for rightly suggesting that the current Pentagon budget is "bloated" and can afford to be cut significantly beyond current plans. At the heart of this question is the fact that the Obama administration has so far made only modest reductions from what had been the largest military budgets since World War II. In a new world in which mass casualty terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and epidemics of disease pose the greatest threats to peace, security, and human life, clinging to traditional military approaches and Cold War era levels of spending makes no sense.
Thirdly, Hagel has shown a strong interest not only in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons but also in reducing global arsenals. While in the Senate, he co-sponsored a bill with then Sen. Barack Obama that called for beefing up funding for International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and providing more money for securing and/or destroying loose nuclear weapons and nuclear bomb-making materials. These discrete commitments were embedded in larger proposals for securing all loose nuclear materials worldwide in four years time and addressing the need to reduce global nuclear weapons stockpiles. This aspect of Hagel's record would make him a strong, trustworthy advocate of additional steps towards eliminating nuclear weapons that President Obama can and should take during his second term.
Fourth and finally, Chuck Hagel believes in engagement with adversaries as a valuable tool in resolving the most critical problems we face. He has warned of the dangers of military action against Iran, and his selection suggests that President Obama understands them as well.
It is critical that the next secretary of defense understand the limits of military force, confront the nuclear danger, and reshape the Pentagon budget to address new challenges. Chuck Hagel's record suggests that he understands the urgent need to do these things. The ultimate decisions on all of these issues obviously reside with President Obama, but it would be extremely useful to have Chuck Hagel on the inside making the case for reform.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex.