11/24/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

What If Chuck Hagel Had Resigned for a Reason?

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Why did Chuck Hagel step down as secretary of defense? Was it his choice, as President Obama has suggested, or was he pushed? We may never be absolutely sure. But one thing that is clear is that Hagel's tenure was a missed opportunity to put our security policy on a sounder footing at a time of increasing uncertainty.

It would have been refreshing if Secretary Hagel had resigned over objections to the Obama administration's drift toward a more hawkish foreign policy and away from some of the president's most important commitments, like his pledge to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. Hagel is probably too much of a team player for that, but it's intriguing to consider what might have happened if he had stuck with some of his core views and vigorously pressed for them during his tenure.

One area of agreement between President Obama and Secretary Hagel that preceded Hagel's nomination was the need to substantially reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. Obama used one of his first major addresses, his April 2009 Prague speech, to pledge that the United States would work toward the goal of "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Another key phrase that occurred in the next sentence of the speech -- Obama's suggestion that the elimination of nuclear weapons might not happen "in my lifetime" -- was largely ignored at the time. But taken together, the statements at least suggested that the Obama presidency would be marked by strenuous efforts to sharply reduce global nuclear arsenals and set the stage for their eventual elimination.

Hagel also lent his voice to calls for deep nuclear reductions. He was part of a commission assembled by the nuclear disarmament organization Global Zero that presented a proposal illustrating how the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be reduced from thousands of nuclear warheads to 900, with 450 of those deployed at any one time. The smaller force would be centered on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) would be eliminated. The plan was premised on mutual U.S.-Russian reductions that could be pursued in parallel with talks among all nuclear weapons states.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Hagel's nuclear stance drew heavy fire from Republican hawks during his Senate confirmation hearings, characterized by misleading suggestions that Hagel supported unilateral nuclear disarmament. Proponents of ICBMs -- including members with major nuclear facilities in their states -- hammered Hagel on how he could possibly support their elimination. Rather than engage in a discussion of nuclear strategy, Hagel opted to build a defensive perimeter behind the point that the commission study was "illustrative," and that therefore he did not necessarily endorse every detail. A genuine exchange laying out how excessive and unnecessary the current U.S. nuclear arsenal is would have served as a major tool for public education on this issue, but in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of Washington substantive policy discussions are increasingly difficult to conduct in the context of a heated confirmation battle. But the public would have been far better served if Hagel had made the practical case for nuclear reductions.

If Hagel's confirmation hearings had been a primer on the need to slash nuclear arsenals, perhaps he would have been better positioned to advocate that President Obama revive the interest and attention on the nuclear issue that had diminished in his second term. In the first Obama term his administration made some incremental steps in the right direction, including the New START treaty, which will cut deployed U.S. and Russian weapons by one-third. The president also initiated the first in a series of nuclear summits designed to devise measures to keep bomb-making materials out of the hands of terrorist organizations. But as U.S.-Russian relations soured -- well before the crisis in Ukraine -- the prospects of further joint reductions receded. And nuclear policy took an even more startling wrong turn when the President cut nonproliferation funding in favor of spending more on a new generation of nuclear weapons facilities in his Fiscal Year 2015 budget request.

Sadly, one of Chuck Hagel's last official acts before announcing that he would step down as Secretary of Defense was to preside over the release of two reports calling for increased investment in an already overfunded nuclear arsenal. While the reports identified numerous management and morale issues that needed to be addressed, it wrongly assumed that spending additional billions on nuclear weapons-related programs was the solution. The scandals in the nuclear enterprise -- from cheating on competency tests to losing track of weapons -- should provide the opportunity to ask why the United States still has thousands of nuclear weapons in the first place. They can serve no possible defensive purpose other than dissuading another country from attacking the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons. And studies by professors at the Air War College and the Naval War College have suggested that that objective can be accomplished with a few hundred weapons. Even the Pentagon has acknowledged that current deployed warheads can be cut by one-third without undermining U.S. security.

In short, the recommendations of the Global Zero commission that Chuck Hagel served on -- including its recommendation to seek a path towards eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide -- still make sense. President Obama would be well-served by taking a fresh look at them, without or without Chuck Hagel as his Secretary of Defense. It's his legacy -- and our security -- that are ultimately at stake.