Early Wednesday morning, Chuck Hagel was sworn in as defense secretary, in a small private ceremony at the Pentagon.
It may be the last fun he has for quite a while.
In short order he will be confronted with a host of intractable foreign policy challenges: orchestrating an honorable and dignified end to the war in Afghanistan; dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions; determining a sensible and humane means of helping Syria out of its brutal civil war; and keeping the nation safe in the face of looming and potentially devastating cuts to the defense budget.
It won’t be easy.
Hagel, a former Republican two-term senator from Nebraska, takes office bruised and battered by weeks of ugly wrangling that arguably did as much damage to the Senate as to the nominee. His former colleagues were so intent on blocking Hagel’s confirmation that they resorted to embarrassing, even bizarre tactics.
It was bad enough when a conservative media outlet, citing Senate sources, suggested that Hagel was linked to a sinister-sounding but non-existent organization called “Friends of Hamas.”
On Tuesday, as the inevitability of Hagel’s confirmation became evident, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., tried by tortuous logic to insinuate Hagel was a Holocaust denier.
After announcing he had just seen “Schindler’s List” for the first time, Inhofe recommended everyone watch the film, which is set in the midst of Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews during World War II. He then circled back to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose president has questioned the Holocaust.
“Iran denies that it even took place,” said Inhofe indignantly. “You won’t find any country … that is more anti-Israel than Iran. Isn’t it interesting, though, that Iran supports Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense? “
Iran has not, in fact, supported Hagel’s nomination, but reality took a back seat to emotion as the lawmakers sought to block the president’s choice.
They confirmed Hagel by 58 votes to 41, which, according to The New York Times, is the smallest margin for a defense secretary since the position was created in 1947.
This is not going to make his job any easier.
“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective on his job,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told Time magazine.
But as the new defense secretary strives to mend fences, he will be juggling some of the most sensitive issues to face the nation in recent history.
Iran: A tempest in a centrifuge
On Wednesday in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the “P5 +1” group of nations (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) wrapped up two days of talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran on its deeply controversial nuclear program.
Iran insists it has the right to develop a uranium enrichment program for peaceful purposes; the United States and its allies, particularly Israel, are determined that Iran not be allowed to acquire the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
Hagel’s position on Iran came under close scrutiny during his confirmation hearings, when he seemed uncertain of the administration’s position, and, in fact, suggested that he supported a policy of containment. The president has stated explicitly that containment is not an option.
Senate Republicans say they want a strong message sent to Iran that the United States would use force if necessary to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon, and pounced on Hagel’s hesitancy.
Tensions are rising: The United States and its allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran, which has struck back with threats to choke off the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz.
Obama has said it’s “unacceptable” for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and is developing “bunker buster” bombs capable of destroying even the most hardened sites.
This week’s talks produced little in the way of actual results, but the two sides did agree to keep talking, and will meet again in March, this time in Istanbul.
Between now and then, the newly anointed defense secretary will have to huddle with the White House to make sure Washington has a clear and cohesive policy that can be easily communicated to the sparring parties — in this case, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the US Congress.
Syria: You got to have friends
The civil war in Syria, which has now claimed close to 70,000 lives, by the United Nations human rights chief’s count.
Despite recent reports the Syrian government could be open to negotiating with the rebels, President Bashar al-Assad seems as intent as ever on crushing opposition while remaining in power, and the world has, so far at least, not been eager to change that.
That may be about to change. John Kerry, on his inaugural trip as secretary of state, will take part in a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Rome on Thursday, which will include leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition.
Kerry has made statements indicating that the United States may at last be getting serious about aid to the struggling opposition.
“We are not coming to Rome simply to talk,” Kerry told reporters in London earlier this week, according to The Washington Post. “We’re coming . . . to make decisions about next steps.”
If those next steps include any direct military aid to the opposition, Hagel will have to get involved. Last year, his predecessor, Leon Panetta, along with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief David Petraeus, tried to persuade the administration to arm the rebels; the White House rejected the idea. With the situation becoming worse by the day, Washington’s security chiefs may decide to revisit their options.
Afghanistan: Is this what victory looks like?
Hagel will barely have time to catch his breath before the long agony of the war in Afghanistan catches up with him.
The United States is in the middle of a major drawdown of forces; by the end of 2014, its combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.
But Washington has repeatedly stated it will not abandon the country to an uncertain and unenviable fate. By the time its troops have left, Afghan security forces are supposed to be in a position to defend the country against any remaining insurgency, aided by an as yet undetermined number of international advisers.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details.
First, there are many questions as to whether Afghan forces will be ready to take over from the international forces any time soon. Security experts have called training efforts “fundamentally broken.”
Also, it has recently emerged that progress reports issued by the military have been severely flawed: figures citing a drop in the number of Taliban attacks on foreign troops last year were off by 7 percentage points, according to military officials, nullifying the reported gains.
“The corrected numbers — from the original reports of a 7 percent decline to one of no change — could undercut the narrative promoted by the international coalition and the Obama administration of an insurgency in steep decline,” reported the Associated Press.
The central question swirling in international circles now is how many foreign “advisers” will be left on the ground. Panetta met with other NATO defense ministers in Brussels last week to discuss the Afghanistan endgame. His German counterpart, Thomas de Maiziere, set off a minor contretemps when he told reporters Panetta had told him that the United States would leave between 8,000 and 12,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Panetta later called de Maiziere’s comments inaccurate, saying he had merely been discussing “ranges of options,” and that the numbers reflected the entire international force, not just US troops.
Hagel will have to try to bring some clarity to this contentious issue and, to make matters worse, he will most likely have to do it as his budget is slashed and his options are truncated.
What exactly is “sequestration”? It sounds painful.
Hagel takes office just two days before the dreaded “sequester” axe is due to fall.
The result of acrimonious negotiations between the White House and Congress in the summer of 2011, the budget cuts outlined in the sequester will fall most heavily on the Defense Department. If nothing is done to avert the measure, Hagel will see $47 billion disappear from his budget this year alone.
This will necessitate the truncation of some defense programs and a furlough of some 800,000 civilian defense workers.
Hagel has been quoted as saying that the Defense Department budget was “bloated” and needed to be “pared down.” But given the proposed across-the-board cuts, he may be rethinking his position.
By the end of the week, Hagel may be wishing the Senate had found a way of blocking his confirmation for just a little bit longer.
This article originally was published in Global Post.