As President Obama heads into his second term, and a new cabinet comes into shape, attention now focuses on the leading choice for Secretary of Defense: Chuck Hagel.
As the Chairman of the Atlantic Council, and former Nebraska GOP Senator, Hagel certainly has the policy chops and political bona fides to take over the reins from the current Secretary Leon Panetta.
The next secretary of defense will immediately be faced with managing American commitments and new priorities. The Pentagon will continue its rebalance — or "pivot" — toward the Asia-Pacific, where the U.S. has already been bolstering its presence in the region. At the same time, the next secretary of defense will preside over a transition in Afghanistan that insiders say appears harder than anticipated — both politically and operationally.
Then there's the Middle East at large, which presents a separate set of challenges: Egypt's rocky political transitions, an intransigent Iran, and escalating violence in Syria. Key in managing the U.S. role in each and all of these situations is recognizing the limits of American power and influence. Fortunately, Hagel gets how complex the picture is, and would be committed to ensuring that the U.S. military does not become overextended yet again.
America's commitments will also be shaped by Pentagon budget reforms. The Defense Department is scheduled to trim $487 billion in spending over the next decade. If the sequester cuts eventually do go into effect — the fiscal cliff deal only delayed them by two months — the Pentagon will face an additional $500 billion in cuts. If confirmed as the next secretary of defense, Hagel would already come into the position with the mindset that the Defense budget is "bloated." Moreover, his political experience on Capitol Hill would prove useful in guiding the department through reforms that, though necessary, are likely to be highly politicized and contentious.
Aside from these near-term challenges, the next secretary of defense will also need to prepare for 21st century threats. Tomorrow's threats could just as easily come from non-state actors or take place in cyberspace. Issues once unconnected to national security — such as the environment — now play critical roles for America's military, as resource insecurity (like water or energy) can escalate the risk of conflict.
During his time in the Senate and now at the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been a strategic thinker who understands the interconnectedness of an array of threats. He has demonstrated the ability to understand the terrain of these new battlefields, and would be well-prepared shape the military as it prepares for this new security environment.
Considering the overall breadth and depth of his experience, Chuck Hagel would bring many relevant strengths to the table — which is all the more important, since the next Pentagon chief will find a full plate of challenges upon arrival.