On the eve of the Senate confirmation hearings several weeks ago, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward penned an illuminating piece about now-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The story featured a newly released quote that Hagel reportedly said to Obama just a few months into his presidency:
"We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don’t control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they [the military and diplomats] tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."
In response, Woodward says, the president did not say much, but listened.
Woodward goes on to address a number of different issues and elements of Hagel's worldview in his article, but underlying all of them, Hagel's statement reflects a distinct postmodern sentiment of doubt and uncertainty about the true nature of the world. It shows a refreshing honesty, but it also could be cause for concern.
The doubt and skepticism here is bound to resonate with many millennials who have come to see that the world is a complicated, unsearchable cauldron of data and relationships, a place where reality is never as simple as a news report and our problems are never as simple as one political party or people group. In fact, Hagel's statement feels remarkably similar to the crux of postmodern philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard's introduction in his famous work, The Postmodern Condition: "All that has been received, if only yesterday, must be suspected."
Amid the controversy surrounding the secretary of defense nominations, the prospect of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense never appeared to be of particular concern to younger voters, but I suspect that if young people learned more about him they would come to appreciate his skeptical attitude, humble self-evaluation, and reserved judgment.
This stands in distinct contrast to most of today's political discourse, which resonates with confidence and focuses on communicating simple, understandable messages. The recent campaign season reminds us that when it comes to messaging in the age of Twitter and texting, the simpler and less-nuanced the better. Hagel, in contrast, has adamently refused to see the world in black and white. Recall the testy exchange during the confirmation hearings between Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hagel regarding the troop surge in Iraq.
"Were you right about the troop surge?" McCain repeatedly asked after Hagel refused to give a simple yes or no answer. "I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel eventually replied.
In other words, we don't have enough information or historical perspective to make an accurate judgment.
Hagel echoed this idea at other points in the hearing. In perhaps the most unfairly quoted line, he said, "A number of questions were asked of me today about specific programs, submarine programs, different areas of technology and acquisitions, and our superior technology. I've said I do not know enough about it. I don't. There are a lot of things I don't know about."
"If confirmed," he added, "I intend to know a lot more than I do. I will have to. But at the same time, I would never think that this, as I said earlier, is about me or I will be running anything."
If you stop and think about this for a moment, the only response can be, "well duh." Obviously no one person has the capacity to make educated decisions about all of the complex issues the US military faces. You must delegate tasks and outsource knowledge and expertise. We aren't accustomed to hearing our elected officials confess such ignorance, but that is reality. There's no way we could expect one man to be proficient in every aspect of the world's most powerful national defense.
Hagel went on to add that "no one individual vote, no one individual quote, or no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record." He then qualified all of his past statements: "My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together; and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests."
That last sentence is simple and politically safe enough to say, and Hagel's apparent honesty is commendable, but Woodward's story and certain comments in Hagel's confirmation hearing and elsewhere also present a cause for concern. When pressed with specific criticisms of past statements about issues like nuclear disarmament or engagement with Iran, he seems unsure of himself and unable to articularte a clear vision for America's armed forces. Uncertainty and "evolving views" can become problematic if they lead to timidity.
Hagel (and, incidentally, new Secretary of State John Kerry) will be unique among America's past leaders in these positions because they are products of the Vietnam War era. Both are Vietnam veterans, in fact. It's unlikely that either man approaches any international conflict— or potential conflict — in clear, dogmatic terms. They understand, for example, that certain foreign policy paradigms that worked in the Cold War Era may not be effective now in our unipolar, globalizing world.
Doubt, nuance, and a healthy recognition of the changing nature of our globalized era have their place. Yet effective leadership requires clear, steadfast conviction. The Department of Defense especially needs a clear, coherent strategy and the drive to implement it without reservation. Now that he is on the fast track to becoming the DoD's next secretary, Hagel will have to show that his plan for America's national defense extends beyond merely questioning its role.