Hagel's first major conflict is US budget
Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel returns a salute to his senior military assistant Lt Gen Tom Waldheuser on his first day as US defence secretary at the Pentagon. photograph: reuters
After a protracted and bitter battle over his confirmation, Chuck Hagel finally started as secretary of defence at the Pentagon yesterday.
On the same day it emerged that the White House was considering providing military aid to the rebels in Syria, a major change in US policy.
The Obama administration is considering providing Syrian rebels with body armour and armoured vehicles as the 22-month-old conflict rages on. Washington has made direct contact with rebel leaders but aid has been restricted so far to communications equipment and building political opposition to the Assad regime.
US secretary of state John Kerry said Syria’s opposition needed more help in its struggle against President Bashar al-Assad and the Obama administration wanted to find ways to speed up a political transition.
“We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the transition the Syrian people seek and deserve,” Mr Kerry said after meeting French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Paris yesterday. The US wanted the Syrian opposition’s advice on speeding up a political solution to end the bloodshed, he said.
“That may require us to change president al-Assad’s current calculation. He needs to know he cannot shoot his way out of this, so we need to convince him of that, and I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that.”
The civil war in Syria is not at the top of Mr Hagel’s in-tray at the Pentagon, however; policies on Syria and Afghanistan are set by the White House.
Instead the looming cuts in military spending starting on Friday with the so-called “sequester” of automatic, across-the-board and indiscriminate spending cuts, totaling $85 billion (€65 billion) this year and $1.2 trillion over the next decade, will put Mr Hagel at the heart of this budgetary conflict.
“We need to deal with this reality,” he told Pentagon staff just hours after being sworn in as the 24th US defence secretary, becoming the first Vietnam veteran and enlisted soldier in the job.
In the tightest voting margin confirming a defence secretary since the post was created in 1947, the Senate approved Mr Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, in a 58-to-41 vote on Tuesday. Just four Republicans voted to support their former colleague who will succeed Leon Panetta.
Military expenditure accounts for about $700 billion a year or a fifth of the US annual federal budget but as much as 56 per cent of day-to-day discretionary government spending.
The Pentagon will be hardest hit in the spending cuts where this year’s budgets face reductions of up to 13 per cent if a deal is not reached before Friday.Spending cuts of $46 billion have been earmarked at the department of defence this year and 800,000 staff have been told they face unpaid leave.
Ross K Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who served on Mr Hagel’s senate staff as an academic observer, said the new defence secretary has never had responsibility for an organisation as vast as the Pentagon.
“He will have vast staff resources at his disposal but he must take care not to become captive of them. They have their own agendas,” said Mr Baker.
“The least consequential challenge is the intellectual one. He is diabolically smart and his knowledge of the world is impressively large. He knows the issues and many of the players. I think the managerial challenge is, by far, the greatest.”
Mr Hagel’s toughest task will be how to use a decline in resources to force a rethink in strategy at an important transitional point as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are wound down, said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington DC.
The former senator’s background as an enlisted soldier will stand to him in building immediate hands-on camaraderie with many staff at the Pentagon but he has no experience in managing big budgets, he said.
“He has some experience working for the Veterans’ Administration so he is not a complete neophyte but his learning curve at the Pentagon is a vertical,” said Mr Adams.
As for the job ahead, the challenges, particularly on budgetary and management matters, facing Mr Hagel will make his bruising confirmation process seem like “playing in a child’s play pen,” he said.