Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s about-face — from hawkish war veteran senator to Pentagon budget cutter and liberal comrade — came full circle this week as he announced plans to make a shrinking armed forces even smaller.
In his last Senate term, the Nebraska Republican split with President George W. Bush on the Iraq War and aligned with the dominant liberal voices on the Foreign Relations Committee — Democrats Joseph R. Biden, John F. Kerry and Barack Obama.
With Mr. Hagel, that quartet now is running the country’s national security policymaking. The alliance was the beginning of Mr. Hagel’s shift on defense, which he underscored Monday.
“Anytime you bring force structure down and capability down and resources down, that’s going to add to the risk of the dimension of the missions that you’re expected to carry out,” he told reporters in presenting a 2015 budget that was endorsed immediately by The New York Times’ liberal editorial page.
“You have fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer planes,” Mr. Hagel said.
“On this it seems he genuinely aligns himself with President Obama,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
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Mr. Hagel all but endorsed Mr. Obama for president in 2008 by accompanying him on a trip to the Iraq War zone. “They bonded as senators,” Ms. Eaglen said.
She said Mr. Hagel also could be influenced by his Defense Department predecessor, Robert M. Gates, who all but ruled out any more big land wars for the U.S.
“These days, it is increasingly becoming popular in the Republican Party to call for less U.S. engagement and leadership abroad,” Ms. Eaglen said.
A Senate Republican aide was less kind: “Hagel is a political opportunist. He sold out to the far left’s altar of dismantling the U.S. military to become Obama’s defense secretary.”
On Monday, Mr. Hagel essentially overruled the Army’s long-reviewed plan announced several months ago by Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff. The general said he needed a 490,000-solider force to meet future global missions. Mr. Hagel said the new number is 440,000.
Mr. Hagel suspended procurement of the Navy’s cherished coastal warship at 32 and said 11 cruisers will be put on temporary duty while being modernized. He provided no firm numbers on how a 283-ship fleet can grow to 300, the Navy’s goal.
He mothballed the A-10 Thunderbolt combat jet, which proved effective in Iraq and Afghanistan in hitting ground targets. Further cuts are planned in Air Force squadrons.
The defense secretary also is curtailing grocery and housing benefits for troops.
Collectively, it’s an effort to meet Mr. Obama’s budget goals of protecting mandatory entitlement spending against Republican-demanded reforms.
A sea change on defense
Washington observers would have been hard-pressed to foresee the current Mr. Hagel when he arrived in the Senate in 1997 as a solid conservative bent on a strong armed force.
A Vietnam War veteran and entrepreneur, Mr. Hagel launched his Senate campaign on a theme that President Clinton had cut the military budget too deeply. He endorsed a Senate Republican plan to add $23 billion to Mr. Clinton’s Pentagon budget.
“A strong national defense is the cornerstone and the backbone of American foreign policy. It is the guarantor of our foreign policy,” he said, according to the Journal Star of Lincoln, Neb.
Mr. Clinton cut the Army to 482,000 soldiers. Mr. Hagel now is endorsing an even smaller force.
Mr. Hagel on Monday questioned future U.S. military dominance, saying the “development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the sea, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
Gordon Adams, a White House defense budget official in the Clinton administration, said Mr. Hagel is a “moderate Republican” who is doing the same thing Republican presidents have done after a war: conduct a military drawdown.
“I don’t really think he’s transformed,” Mr. Adams said. “You are at the point in time in history that you are in. You are in the point of political geography that you are in. I never saw Chuck Hagel as a hawk at any point in time.”
Mr. Adams, who attended a Hagel briefing Tuesday at the Pentagon with other outside defense analysts, added: “It seemed very clear to me from the very start that Obama brought in Chuck Hagel to be his man in overseeing the defense drawdown. This is something we’ve done before. I don’t see him as anti-defense, not in the least.”
A Biden loyalist
When Mr. Hagel arrived in Washington, an article in the Lincoln newspaper said: “Hagel described himself as a staunch supporter of reducing government and reducing taxes. But he said he is very concerned about the United States’ role in the world. He said that recent military spending cuts have threatened the nation’s defenses and have placed veterans in poor financial condition.”
After his first term, a Senate source said, Mr. Hagel complained that the Washington press corps paid little attention to him. That changed when the Republican senator turned on Mr. Bush and zeroed in on the cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We are finally getting to the point where the American people are getting a sense of this, and I think most of my colleagues are getting to the point where they are just not going to put up with it anymore,” he said in March 2006.
He became an even louder critic after Mr. Bush announced the 2007 Iraq troop surge.
“I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam,” Mr. Hagel said on the Senate floor.
Mr. Hagel declared himself a Biden loyalist, endorsing the foreign policy views of the man who would become vice president.
He sent Mr. Bush a letter urging him to talk to Iran’s mullahs without strings attached.
“I urge you to consider pursuing direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran,” Mr. Hagel said in a 2007 letter to the president.
At a public forum, he said: “We are afraid to talk with someone or we apply preconditions like it’s a great privilege to talk to the United States. That’s not diplomacy.”
His emerging celebrity status got him a solo appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he said of Mr. Bush: “This is one of the most arrogant, incompetent administrations I’ve ever seen personally or ever read about.”
Out of office and ensconced at the Atlantic Council as chairman, Mr. Hagel became a de facto Democrat by endorsing the party’s candidates. He became dovish on any thought of attacking Iran to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and he sent a warning to the Pentagon.
“I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down,” he told the Financial Times. “I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time.”
Mr. Hagel now is carrying out that philosophy.
“Secretary Hagel is truly having to put lipstick on the budget pig,” said Ms. Eaglen. “And he’s achieving this through lowering our strategic aims around the world, increasing the risk to U.S. forces in harm’s way. A 440,000-large Army is too small to meet the long-standing, two-war construct.”
The last time the armed forces sustained such a big budget slash was in another postwar era, during the 1990s under President George H.W. Bush and Mr. Clinton. The Clinton administration cut the number of Army divisions from 18 to 12, the number of ships from 454 to 341 and the number of fighter squadrons from 76 to 50.