On January 31, the Senate will have its first chance to question Chuck Hagel, the President’s somewhat-controversial nominee for secretary of defense. Wonks such as myself will be glued to the screen, but unless you have a specific interest in the subject, you can hardly be blamed for being tired of the partisan chatter over Hagel’s nomination, which has dominated the headlines for months now.
Regardless of the upcoming confirmation hearing or its outcomes, however, there are at least three major reasons why you should care about who will replace Leon Panetta as the head of the Department of Defense.
1. The Pentagon’s budget is coming down.
As two major wars come to a close, the next secretary of defense will be responsible for shepherding the military’s spending through a period of change. Most experts agree that the Pentagon’s budget has already begun to decrease slowly and will continue to do so. But the tough decisions have just begun.
Hagel will be tasked with identifying and weeding out the waste and excess that has accumulated over more than a decade of war, and the task won’t be easy. We currently spend just 7% less on the base military budget (which excludes the cost of the wars) than Ronald Reagan did during the height of the Cold War.
2. The standoff with Iran could be coming to an end.
What that end might be is still an open question. It is a very real possibility that the next secretary of defense could be faced with the question of whether or not to launch an attack on Iran.
While Hagel has been criticized for his reluctance to go to war with Iran, he’s far from the only one. The president, Joint Chiefs of Staff and, according to polls, the majority of American people are also skeptical of the wisdom of a war. All are wary of entering into another large-scale ground war in the Middle East, but few have taken the option off the table. When and if the time comes, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the first formerly enlisted soldier to lead the Pentagon, is uniquely equipped to grapple with such a question.
3. The country is deeply divided.
Republican opposition to Hagel’s appointment largely boils down to one fact: He agrees with the president. Over months of partisan bickering since his nomination was announced, Hagel has come to represent the potential for change in the ongoing stalemate that is Capitol Hill. He is the ever more elusive moderate Republican unicorn, and in an era where few believe that the GOP of today would support even Ronald Reagan, he represents a threat to the extremes.
The outcome has yet to be seen, but Hagel’s nomination may be the first inkling of the president’s determination to fight for the center in his second term. If this nomination can help bridge the gap between the Democratic White House and the extreme Republican right, that’s a fight worth tuning in for.