Presidents choose cabinet members for a lot of reasons: friendship, substantive expertise, political rewards, payback. This president has decided he wants Chuck Hagel at Defense. There's a lot of hype about why: they see the world the same way; they served on the Foreign Relations Committee together; he needs a Republican for cover.
In political Washington, critics of the nominees go after them for an equally wide variety of reasons. Lobbyists and spokespersons who purport to represent the security needs or interests of Israel have been teeing off on Hagel for weeks now. And it is not quite clear why Elliott Abrams went so far as to accuse him of being an anti-semite: "I don't understand really how you can reach any other conclusion, that he seems to have some kind of problem with Jews." Really!
Time to back off on this rhetoric. He is nominated to be secretary of defense, not prime minister of Israel, and the Defense Department doesn't put Israeli policy at the center of its mission or capabilities.
For me, the questions for Hagel don't have to do with his policy views on Israel, Iran, or, for that matter, gays. They have to do with the things he would really be responsible for: the management of a defense drawdown in a way that keeps the U.S. military sharp, strengthens the point of the spear for what it should be doing, and constrains the overuse of the military for missions that are not their core competence.
Not everyone is going to agree on what these things mean, and smart minds will disagree. But there is no way of getting around the reality that we are in a drawdown and it will require sound management decisions, strong leadership, an ability to both work with and talk back to the services, and a willingness to make choices that DOD has been able to avoid for the last ten years.
The looming sequester battle will lead Secretary Hagel to this set of issues. In my view, the result of the tax deal is that defense budgets are even more on the table than they were last year, and they should be.
Any deal will have to work both sides of spending; Republicans know it, Democrats know it. And Hagel's first challenge will be dealing with that negotiation. Leon Panetta is probably glad he could well be out of town before the fan gets hit. In those talks, the FY 2013 budget level for defense will decline from the current continuing resolution. Is Hagel ready for this? The learning curve on choice-making is steep and the pace is rapid.
Second challenge: There is no DOD (nor any other) budget for next year, and it looks like the budget request will be delayed. The level is likely to be below what the president's budget forecast last year. What are the choices to be made? Is he ready for them?
Third challenge: The Pentagon is starting its Quadrennial Defense Review, due to be carried out this year. Hundreds of choices to be made and options to be defined. And this year, more than any year, that strategy review will be heavily impacted by resource constraints. Hagel is going to see a ton of PowerPoint over the next six months; better fasten his seat belt.
These challenges are also opportunities to reshape the military, constrain the runaway "back office" at DOD, hold contractors to realistic pricing on hardware programs, and make the tough decisions about compensation and benefits that need to happen.
If Hagel is a good defense manager, he will have to make progress on these things. They are the reason we spend too much on defense, not the external challenges America faces, not even the Iranian nuclear program.
So it is time to cut the irrelevant chatter and ask the nominee the really tough questions. How will he manage the real challenges at DOD?
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