Drawn Out Confirmation Could Inhibit Hagel’s Effectiveness

The former Republican senator will have many fences to mend when he is confirmed.

Top Republicans in the United States Senate urged President Barack Obama on Thursday to withdraw his nomination of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel for the position of secretary of defense.

Tension between the parties has been high for several weeks as concerns about Hagel’s record of comments and actions on a number of issues failed to abate. Opposition legislators have questioned his position on the entrenched American-Israeli relationship, the United States’ military force posture around the world and his commitment to resolving the Iranian nuclear question.

Republicans in the Senate have previously resolved to stand aside and allow the Democratic majority to approve Obama’s nominations but it is clear that unease yet permeates discussions in Washington about Hagel’s future in the administration.

It is not just the Nebraskan’s position of Israel or his vagueness regarding Iran in the past that has politicians in both parties wondering about the wisdom of confirming his candidacy. The process of confirmation itself has been so intense and so characterized by major challenges for Hagel that he may find himself seriously constrained when he assumes the job.

For example, America’s near term commitment to dealing with the threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation and working out a way to engage positively with Tehran may be undermined by recent debates in Senate chambers. Though Hagel’s proclamations of the legitimacy of the current regime in Tehran may win favor from Iranian officials and make the bargaining process more amicable, lawmakers have variously had trouble pinning down whether the president’s preferred defense secretary favors strategies of prevention or containment.

An ambivalence from the nation’s highest defense official is not likely to encourage restraint or accommodations on the part of the Iranian government in nuclear negotiations nor on possible engagement over Afghan stability beyond 2014 when international forces are set to withdraw from the country. Neither is Hagel’s position on Israel, firmly supportive now but vaguely critical in the past, likely to inspire significant measures of stable control in American relations with the Jewish state.

Indeed, the alleged deal between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put off action against Iran until elections in both nations were over may face challenges if Hagel is confirmed. A perceived lack of will to deal firmly with and set red lines for the Iranian nuclear program could, when strengthened by observations of Hagel’s past criticisms of Jewish settlement activities, push Israeli leaders away from the idea that the United States will be quickly and operationally willing to help when push comes to shove.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the constraints that Hagel will feel as and if he enters office, however, lies in the realm of personal relationships. When Leon Panetta took the job from Robert Gates, confirmation was relatively quick and confidence in the abilities of the former CIA head to get the job done effectively was high. Panetta’s tenure at the Pentagon has been characterized by good relations with members of Congress and the strong support of numerous senior military officials.

Even if confirmed, Hagel will have to mend fences and prove himself to many of the Republican leaders that sit in positions of oversight and budgetary control on the committees of the House and Senate. Relationship triage itself will become a principal near term policy objective of the administration writ large if it is to avoid being perceived in the framework of the vague, off the wall and controversial comments of Hagel’s past.

Those rifts are unlikely to exist only at the congressional level. Though Hagel would surely be introduced to the Pentagon with the full support of Secretary Panetta, vague commitments to the future of spending programs and strategic force posture objectives will have inspired uncertainty in future decisionmaking processes across the armed services.

Hagel, if confirmed, will have to act swiftly to articulate strategic and budgetary directives on a number of fronts in order to establish a detailed level of rapport with the various component parts of the five services. Without undertaking such an effort, a task that will consume time and constrain Hagel’s ability to galvanize action at the Pentagon, Department of Defense programs will likely suffer disproportionately from the coordination issues and policy confusion that imminent spending cuts imply.

Hagel’s vague and, at least to Republicans, unsatisfactory answers of commitment on issues important to American foreign and defense policy may or may not give the country a weak chief civilian defense official. But the rigors of the confirmation process could provide hurdles too high to be immediately overcome by a belated senatorial acceptance.