Is Chuck Hagel Smart Enough to Run the Pentagon?

As I see it, the next secretary of defense will be faced with—among other things—the following big-think policy challenges:

  • Figuring out the long term size and scope of the defense budget in light of the fiscal situation at home and the nature of American military commitments abroad—especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • Figuring out the configuration of American force structure.
  • Figuring out the configuration of American force doctrine. Are we going to go small? Are we going to go small but continue to augment our counterinsurgency capabilities in the process? Are we going to go bigger?
  • Figuring out how the military will play with intelligence agencies like the CIA, the DIA and the NSA, as well as what the size and scope of the Pentagon’s intelligence structure is going to be.
  • Figuring out what steps it wants to take when it comes to the issue of defense transformation.
  • Figuring out what its long term doctrine is going to be regarding the use of drones in warfare.
  • Figuring out how best to run military tribunals, how best to administer indefinite detention, and what to finally do about the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.
  • Trying to convince regional powers that are allies of the United States to take a greater role in their own defense.

I am sure that I am missing various other agenda items, but I figure that ticking off eight big ones will suffice for the moment. To state the incredibly obvious, most—if not all—of these agenda items cannot be kicked down the road by the next Defense Secretary. They are going to have to be addressed quickly and comprehensively. And all of this means that the next Pentagon chief has to be very smart and very intellectually steeped in defense/national security policy. We need a deep thinker with excellent management skills to run the Pentagon.

I write the above as a prelude to linking to this column, in which David Ignatius rightly wonders whether Chuck Hagel really is all that and a bag of chips:

The harder puzzle for the White House is whether Hagel would be the best manager during an important inflection point in Pentagon history. The U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will be ending, and the services will be fighting over how to divide a shrinking budget.

Hagel brings some obvious pluses on both counts: As a Republican and a genuine military hero when he served as an enlisted man in Vietnam, he can give President Obama cover as he executes the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Hagel is angry about what he sees as the misconceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as perhaps only a combat veteran can be. If he had his way, the troops probably would have come home yesterday. But this impatience is also slightly worrying. The withdrawal will succeed only if our military leaves an Afghanistan that can hold together.

Hagel’s military record is surely one big reason why the president wants him. He’s a guy who, as Reed says, knows how to talk to the troops and has walked in their boots. He’s blunt, direct and impatient with pettifogging. In these traits, he’s similar to the current secretary, Leon Panetta, and his predecessor, Bob Gates. And like both of them, Hagel has a temper.

Gates was the most successful defense secretary in modern times, for reasons worth considering now. He understood how to manage the Pentagon and did it not by getting down in the weeds but by staying above them. He delegated the busywork to Pentagon bureaucrats and made the big decisions himself. He was effective partly because people were scared of him. They knew that if they crossed the secretary, they would get fired. This brought a rare accountability.

Hagel could do the tough, no-nonsense-boss part of the job. But Gates had another essential talent that will be harder to match. He was a genuine national-security intellectual, who had studied how to manage and motivate huge institutions when he was director of the CIA and at the National Security Council. He knew the big strategic things about defense policy, but he also knew the little technical things. Gates was such a sawed-off shotgun of a guy that it was easy to miss that he was also a subtle thinker.

Nobody who knows Hagel would describe him as a defense intellectual. He’s more blunt than nuanced. How would he steer Pentagon procurement decisions in this age of new technologies and strategic matrices? I’m not sure. How would he manage the chiefs in their knife fights over the budget? Again, I’m not sure.

Well, we need to be sure. Demanding serious and detailed answers of Hagel regarding these issues is not some neocon/Greater Israel/Jewish lobby/AIPAC machination designed to serve the interests of people Andrew Sullivan and Stephen Walt hate with a Gollumesque passion. If Hagel can give serious and detailed answers regarding these and other issues, I will be favorably impressed and I will write as much. If not, he has no business whatsoever being the next Secretary of Defense.