EDITORIAL: The prospect of Chuck Hagel

There’s a precedent for dismantling defense

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Chuck Hagel humiliated himself with rambling, evasive, stumbling answers to questions from his old Senate colleagues in hearings on his nomination as secretary of defense. He embarrassed Barack Obama, to the extent that the president can be embarrassed by gross incompetence in his administration. Mr. Hagel’s performance was so bad that it raises the question, why does the president want this man in his Cabinet?

Perhaps the president wants a man with a naive worldview, similar to his own, eager to trust the word of troublemakers in the Middle East who encourage jihad against the West, if only to prove that soft and squishy answers will turn away unholy wrath. Perhaps the president wants a man regarded by his old Republican comrades-in-arms as a rogue and turncoat, the better to enjoy driving the Republicans into permanent oblivion. Perhaps the president wants to dismantle American defenses and trust international organizations to protect us. Or perhaps it’s all of the above.

Mr. Hagel boasts of his “consistency” of viewpoint over the years, and indeed, he has been consistent: skeptical of the Iraqi “surge” that saved Iraq, skeptical of sanctions against Iran, skeptical of the American nuclear deterrent, skeptical of our ally in Israel — skeptical, in fact, of everything but his own moral certitude. A man with such consistent skepticism ought to be able to defend those views. But the more his Republican inquisitors pushed, the more he rambled, evaded and stumbled. The Democratic senators who tried to help him did not seem to have their hearts in it.

There’s a fascinating precedent at the Pentagon. When the United States emerged from World War II as the only nuclear power, President Truman imagined that the atomic bomb was all the nation would ever need to defend itself. He fired James V. Forrestal, his tough-minded secretary of defense who resisted the dismantling of the nation’s defenses, and appointed Louis Johnson, a Washington lawyer and party bag man. Mr. Johnson shared the president’s views on defense.

The historian Walter LeFeber observed that the president wanted to calculate the budget by subtracting from total receipts the estimates for domestic needs and operating costs. The rest would go to defense. Louis Johnson agreed. He proposed eliminating nearly everything. “The Navy is on the way out,” he told one admiral shortly after his appointment. “There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. Gen. [Omar N.] Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marines. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”

Such a man could not last long. Harry Truman, never a fan of the Marines and jealous of the reputation the Corps made in France in World War I, came to his senses. But great damage was done.

We don’t know what President Obama ultimately has in mind for America’s defenses. We know he has a curious view of the Middle East. But the prospect of Chuck Hagel in charge at the Pentagon is not encouraging. He suggested last week that he is capable of inflicting considerable damage. If he can inflict such damage on himself we shudder to think what he could do to the nation’s armed forces.

The Washington Times

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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