Putative secretary of defense Chuck Hagel had his baptism-by-fire yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was all theater. One of its most striking features was the absence of almost any serious attention to the challenge he will actually face if he is confirmed: the management of a defense drawdown.
No senator focused on the Pentagon's long-term budget and management challenges. Not one. While a few asked about the looming sequester, the answers were anodyne. Only Sen. McCaskill asked about whether the department needed to have an auditable financial statement by 2017.
There was no discussion of the challenge of getting the costs of weapons procurement under control. Instead, senators from Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Virginia all wanted to be reassured that the defense programs in their states were key to our national security, the top priority of the Pentagon, and protected from budget reductions.
There was no discussion of how to restrain compensation and benefits costs at the Pentagon. There was precious little interest in the programs that deal with the transition of veterans and returning soldiers. Aside from (rightly) honoring Hagel for his service in Vietnam, the people in the military were not a central focus.
And there was virtually no attention at all paid to the critical, long-term management challenge posed by the explosive growth of the Pentagon's "back office." The administrative part of the military bureaucracy has roughly doubled in cost per troop over the past 15 years.
When it came to sequester, the focus was on keeping it from happening, because of the pain it would allegedly cause. The senators have clearly been listening to the campaign being conducted by the service chiefs over the past two weeks, a campaign saying that sequester will cause U.S. military readiness to fall to security-threatening low levels. And, of course, Senator Hagel simply adopted the Panetta rhetoric that sequester would be a "disaster."
But we need to be cautious about this campaign. The service chiefs have been announcing specific, horrific things would happen as a result of a sequester -- docked ships, lowered brigade readiness rates, an end to equipment maintenance. Maybe. But maybe not. The chiefs are suggesting these consequences before they have actually submitted plans for the sequester to the deputy secretary of defense.
Those plans are due today, Feb. 1, but they have no official standing at all. Seems to me the deputy might have something to say about these steps, before the consequences can be announced.
So maybe, even here, we are watching political theater. And the service chiefs are running this show during a transition, while one secretary leaves and another is not yet confirmed. Convenient timing to shape the debate before Hagel arrives? I would be shocked -- shocked! -- to learn there is politics going on in this joint.
It is a pity that the Senate Armed Services Committee decided to avoid the long-term drawdown and the management challenges it actually poses. These are the problems Hagel will really face when he gets to the five-sided building: managing a drawdown safely and intelligently. These are the questions that should have been front and center, instead of the show we saw.
Alex Wong/Getty Images