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    Chuck Hagel will too set policy


    The BATTLE lines are already being drawn for the upcoming confirmation of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. The attacks being put out by Hagel’s detractors are myths: that his earlier remarks that supporters of Israel have dominant influence over Congress amount to anti-Semitism; that his skepticism about war with Iran makes him naive; that his comments about making overtures to Hamas prove he is weak on terrorism.

    In response, allies of the former Republican senator from Nebraska have now settled on an alternative myth, almost as removed from reality as the ones being promoted by neocons. Their argument, reiterated on the airwaves and in newspapers, is clearly part of the approved talking points by those in the Obama administration who want to placate any substantive concerns by members of both parties:

    The secretary of defense, Hagel’s defenders assert, does not set foreign policy. But have we learned nothing? Of course he does.


    Any president has a number of tools in the realm of international relations. They include soldiers, diplomats, spies, and lawyers. As Obama faces unknown challenges in the years ahead, the relative capability of each tool — military power, international cooperation, covert operations, or legal proceedings — will drive his foreign policy options as much as the ideological course set by the White House.

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    The decisions ahead for Hagel are all about foreign policy. Military readiness is the animating concern in figuring out how to right-size the military budget and cut expensive weapons contracts. There were discussions last week, during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit, about how large a US force should remain in Afghanistan after next year; the answer depends on the ability of the military to stop the Taliban without an in-country presence. The question of what to do about Iran’s nuclear program will not be decided in some locked situation room, but by the Pentagon’s assessment of the chances that an air strike would significantly delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The possibility of intervention in Syria will be ruled in or out based on Pentagon predictions about how it would be able to handle the strength of Bashar Assad’s military and the disarray among the rebels.

    As a political strategy to get Hagel confirmed, this “he doesn’t mean much in policy terms, so let him through” message might work. But it is a complete fallacy.

    While the president is the foreign-policy “decider,” there’s more to the story. First, there are all sorts of decisions that never reach the president himself. To have confidence in that process, presumably, the president appoints people like Hagel who represent his agenda.

    More significantly, the president’s decisions are made from a range of choices that are provided to him by the defense secretary, as well as other advisers. The question for a president isn’t just what he might want as a policy matter, but what the agencies can deliver, given their own legal, regulatory, and operational capabilities. A Pentagon chief who promised that war would be “shock and awe” was as much responsible for the decision to invade Iraq as the policy advocates in the White House.


    The decision to portray the defense secretary as limited in power and scope is a concession to a confirmation process that is all but broken. Not too long ago, it was the Democrats who were scoffing, as John Roberts, in his confirmation hearings, implied that the chief justice doesn’t influence the philosophical direction of the Supreme Court. To quell concerns about judicial activism, he maintained that judges are mere “umpires” who don’t make the rules, but only “apply them.”

    The idea that high-level officials, like Roberts or Hagel, merely administer rules set forth by others is a fiction. The secretary of defense has an incredibly powerful position. Indeed, it was the triumph of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ideology over other alternatives that led to the mess Obama inherited four years ago. Hagel, presumably, has a different approach to matching operational capacity with policy decisions. That is why Obama picked him in the first place.

    Hagel should be defense secretary because of, and not despite, the fact that he sets policy.

    Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter