Glorification of the absurd

It appears there are second acts, or is it a third? Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times on Sunday described the "dramatic return to the public stage" of the neocons, who hope to finish off Chuck Hagel's nomination with theatrically embellished claims about his stances on Iran and Israel.

There would be no such drama and no return to the stage but for the eagerness of media editors to stimulate the appearance of a conflict. These folks -- the William Kristols and Elliott Abramses of the policy right -- should be condemned to the dustbin of history for their fatally mistaken fantasies that left a deep, lasting, and negative legacy for U.S. security interests and goals around the world. Kristol is certainly no "mainstream internationalist," as he tries to repaint himself in the Times story; he is a policy extremist, one among many who caused this damage over the past decade.

They fantasized hegemony -- that the 21st century would be an "American century," with U.S. military power ensuring dominance, stability, and the ability to shape events around the globe. But the 21st century, as a recent National Intelligence Council report makes clear, is a global century, with changing coalitions and rising powers, not ours to dominate.

They hoped that sending American men and women in uniform into Iraq in sheer ignorance of the political and cultural conditions on the ground would instantly install democracy (it didn't), eliminate a sponsor of terror (it was not), and end a threatening program of weapons of mass destruction (there weren't any).

That a surge left in place a shaky and hardly democratic regime and a country in shreds is no victory; it is escaping a bad situation without tar and feathering on the way out. They screamed that we should have left troops there to prevent disintegration, ignoring the reality that the presence of U.S. troops could only delay a resolution of Iraq's historic and internal cultural conflicts, at the cost of a continuing loss of American life.

They hoped to eliminate the Taliban as a host to al Qaeda by invading Afghanistan. They accomplished about a third of that task (throwing out the Taliban, but not eliminating it) and then completely dropped the ball in their eagerness to take on Saddam Hussein.

The Taliban returned, the new government sank into the cesspool of corruption too common in that country, and the Obama administration is now coming to terms with the reality that more American soldiers cannot reshape Afghanistan (any more than the Russians or the British could), and it is time to come home.

And it took a focused, disciplined effort on the part of a non-neocon administration to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden, a mission at which the neocons had failed miserably.

Now the chickenhawks are gearing up to send U.S. soldiers into the field again, this time into Iran. For them there will be no staying the hand of an Israeli government determined to go to war; America's fighters must pay the price. They worry that Chuck Hagel might not share this new fantasy.

Have they no shame? Clearly not. Not a lick of embarrassment crosses their faces. It is as if the past does not exist; it's as if they could airbrush the last ten years off the map of history and the nation would forget. Sadly, too many members of Congress are prepared to bluster with them.

I have been clear that I would like some very tough budgetary and managerial questions to be put to the nominee for secretary of defense. Even if he is not deeply steeped in the internal workings of DOD, and he is not, it will be critical for him to focus on managing a defense drawdown in a responsible and balanced way, and not to become a pure mouthpiece for "more" or "holding the line." For a drawdown is surely underway.

But Hagel is vastly more qualified than some to be secretary and certainly more focused on the world as it is, not as the neocons fantasize it to be. Their fantasies have damaged America's reputation, its ability to lead, its national security interests, and left too many soldiers and their families dead or damaged beyond repair.

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National Security

Haggling over Hagel

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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