When it comes to leading the Department of Defense, Chuck Hagel is not the man for the job. This isn’t for the reason most of his critics cite — that he is not sufficiently “pro-Israel.” The fact that Chuck Hagel wants to talk to Hamas or Iran would be much more relevant if he were up for Secretary of State, but as Secretary of Defense, he wouldn’t be the one doing the talking. The problem with Hagel isn’t that he has failed to understand the threats confronting us in the Middle East; the problem is that he doesn’t understand the strategies we employ for defeating them.
This doesn’t mean that Hagel has no qualifications for the position. If he were confirmed, he would become the first former-enlisted secretary in recent memory; the position is often held by former captains and lieutenants, but no secretary since the beginning of the Cold War has been a former sergeant. The enlisted ranks would benefit from having someone in the Pentagon’s senior leadership who understands their perspective, since they are often underrepresented on the committees or task forces which allocate funding and plan training. Hagel’s experience at the Department of Veterans Affairs wouldn’t hurt either.
But this would not be enough to offset the problems that would stem from his failure to think creatively about the use of American force in the Middle East. Since his retirement, Hagel has not visibly contributed to the national debate on engagement in the War on Terror. But the war has transformed significantly since President Obama assumed the Oval Office, and Hagel has not been particularly critical of this change of course.
Since 2008, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan have all become hot spots in the War on Terror. With the notable exception of Osama bin Laden, terrorists in these areas have been targeted by drones rather than ground troops. This is not a coincidence. The administration uses drones to bridge the gap between its goal of hunting terrorists more mercilessly than the last administration while also avoiding committing troops in any other countries.
I am not among those who believe that the drone strikes — as currently employed — are war crimes. When compared to the bombings of Berlin or Tokyo, drone strikes are almost surgical. But this doesn’t mean that they are the most effective strategic weapons for fighting terror either. The reason is because while drone strikes are effective and pose almost no risk to U.S. military personnel, they also create a more negative perception of America’s presence in the Middle East than boots on the ground. This doesn’t mean that they are not part of the solution, only that fighting a widespread counterinsurgency requires soldiers or police as well. Drones don’t dig wells; they don’t meet with local elders to hear their concerns; they don’t arrest warlords extorting money from civilians; they don’t provide food or clothing during famines; they don’t protect school girls from Taliban attacks.
These strategies are often dismissed by libertarians as “nation building” schemes or “utopian” pipe dreams, but these strategies have more to do with wars that no one has ever heard of — like the Malayan Emergency — than they do with Woodrow Wilson’s plan to “make the world safe for democracy.”
If John Kerry and Chuck Hagel were to set foreign policy from the State Department and Pentagon, America would see an extension of the sort of activity which has defined the past four years: fewer troops and more drone strikes. In the past, Hagel has indicated that this is the course he would take. In a Washington Post column from 2009, he wrote:
“Relying on the use of force as a centerpiece of our global strategy, as we have in recent years, is economically, strategically and politically unsustainable and will result in unnecessary tragedy — especially for the men and women, and their families, who serve our country.”
Though the point is easy to miss, it nonetheless suggests that Hagel is not fully aware that the military is defined by much more than “force.” Furthermore, the efforts of the Obama administration in much of the Middle East, under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency, have been defined by nothing but force.
In the same 2009 column, Hagel wrote:
“Consider Yemen and Somalia. Are we prepared to put U.S. ground troops there? I doubt we would seriously consider putting forces in Pakistan, yet its vast Federally Administered Tribal Areas and mountainous western border harbor our most dangerous enemies today. We must shift our thinking, now, to pursue wiser courses of action and sharper, more relevant policies.”
The more relevant policies which the Obama administration has pursued up until this point have been airstrikes. Ironically, these tactics are closer to the failed strategies in Vietnam, where America tried “more shells, more bombs and more napalm” in the hope that the Viet Cong would finally raise the white flag, than anything that the military tried in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This isn’t to say that putting troops on the ground in these areas is the answer. Counterinsurgency has its limits (and has been less successful in Afghanistan than it has in Iraq). In cases like Libya, the best solution would probably have been to do nothing; not only has NATO’s interference in this country given Islamists a foothold in Libya — it has opened the door to Mali as well.
But, at the very least, the Department of Defense needs leadership that understands the military’s strategies for confronting insurgents in a war with a front that now stretches from Tombouctou to Kabul. Chuck Hagel is a war hero who learned lessons from Vietnam, but for waging the War on Terror, they appear to have been the wrong ones.