Feature

Would a Defense Secretary Hagel lead to a demise in American military power?

President Obama's nominee has voiced support for cutting the defense budget

A number of competing theories exist to explain why President Obama nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Republican from Nebraska, to be the next defense secretary. Is it because Hagel was a staunch critic of the Iraq War? Or that Vice President Joe Biden and Hagel have an especially close relationship? Or that Obama wants to get in the GOP's face after Susan Rice was forced to withdraw her candidacy to become secretary of state? The choice of Hagel is a tad mysterious, because his base of support is largely confined to the White House: Hagel is viewed as a turncoat by Republicans, and Democrats aren't crazy about him either. (Liberals may be further angered by reports that Hagel once opposed abortion in cases of rape.) 

One theory is that Hagel and Obama see eye to eye on cutting the Defense Department's bloated budget. "The Pentagon needs to be pared down," Hagel told The Financial Times in 2011. "I don't think our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically in a long time." As a result, department officials are bracing for cuts, says Craig Whitlock at The Washington Post:

Last year, Hagel endorsed a report by the advocacy group Global Zero that called for an 80 percent reduction in the U.S. nuclear-weapons arsenal. Such a cut could save $100 billion over 10 years, the group estimated.

Otherwise, he has given few specific indications of where he would look to save money. Many conservatives, however, suspect that he would be more willing to impose cuts than [current Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta or his predecessor, Robert M. Gates.

"If the picture was gloomy before, the clouds just got darker," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Hagel's just been recruited to be a front man for further budget cuts." [Washington Post]

David Brooks at The New York Times goes further, arguing that "Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks." Indeed, in Brooks' view, American military might may be imperiled by such cuts, all in the name of preserving the welfare state:

Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting...

These spending cuts will transform America's stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today. This is why Adm. Mike Mullen called the national debt the country's biggest security threat. [New York Times]

So would a Defense Secretary Hagel really lead to a demise in American military power? Consider the fact that this year's Pentagon budget is a massive $616 billion. And according to some estimates, the U.S.'s yearly defense budget is larger than that of the next 14 largest militaries combined. The military could probably shed some bulk without having its military supremacy seriously challenged.

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