The defense budget, which peaked at $690 billion in 2010, has been cut. But few major weapons programs have been canceled since then, and although the Army and Marines have fewer troops, they are still at 2007 levels, when the Iraq war was at its height.
Hagel, who was awarded two Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War, has long argued the Pentagon needs to diet. That perspective is needed as Obama and Congress try to cut military spending by $500 billion over 10 years. With U.S. soldiers pulling out of Afghanistan, defense should be included in efforts to cut the federal deficit.
Opposition to Hagel has cropped up on several fronts. Fellow Republicans hold a grudge because Hagel became an opponent of the Iraq war and he endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Gay-rights groups have criticized Hagel's support of the Defense of Marriage Act and his 1998 comment that an ambassadorship nominee was "openly, aggressively gay."
Partisan sniping at Hagel for endorsing a man who later nominated him for a cabinet post shouldn't block his appointment. Hagel's apologies for his past insensitivity to gays is being called "too little, too late" by Gregory T. Angelo of the Log Cabin Republicans. But Obama's having dismantled the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy should win some goodwill for his nominee.
Hagel may have a harder time withstanding opposition from Jewish groups concerned that he opposed Iran sanctions in 2007 and has been critical of the clout pro-Israel lobbyists have in Washington. A group called the Emergency Committee for Israel has begun airing ads and has a website (chuckhagel.com) aimed at killing his nomination.
Referring to the organized efforts, Lawrence J. Korb, a Reagan administration assistant defense secretary, told the Washington Post, "I have never seen anything like this." The only thing close, he said, was the 1989 opposition to John Tower's nomination to be defense secretary, but that concerned questions about Tower's character, not policy differences.
Hagel's nomination should be scrutinized, but those doing the scrutiny shouldn't act as if he could set policy that deviates from his boss' positions. Obama has been clear that he supports gay rights, and will defend Israel. Hagel's appointment should not be held up by the suggestion that he could change either policy. That's not why he was nominated.