New Defense Cuts May Force Hagel's Hand

Image: New Defense Cuts May Force Hagel's Hand

Monday, 02 Dec 2013 11:28 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has kept a relatively low profile at the Pentagon since his appointment nine months ago, is facing what some sources close to him say could be his biggest challenge as he prepares to confront a new round of defense cuts, according to a report in Politico Magazine.

Hagel, who some administration officials call a "paper tiger," showed some signs of fighting back at sequestration cuts when he reinstated five of 11 furlough days for Pentagon civilian employees without getting White House approval. The former Republican senator from Nebraska gave only a one-hour notice before he went public with his decision in that instance.

But whether the White House will allow him that kind of leeway again is still an open question, according to administration officials who told Politico that Hagel's approach to dealing with the sequester's impact on the military is different from the way the president wants to handle it.

With a new round of defense cuts on the horizon that could take $100 billion a year from the Pentagon, Hagel and his commanders will need to choose between retaining troops and their benefits programs or paring back on modern weapons systems.

The fight may determine the military's future as the nation winds down its war presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hagel shares Obama's goal of a more efficient, if leaner, military, reports Politico, but he is pushing to separate Pentagon spending entirely from the rest of the nondefense budget, putting him at odds with the White House, which is trying to put pressure on Republicans to spare social programs at the same time they are moving to restore some defense cuts.

"If you just start to carve out certain popular items from the sequester you don't solve the problem," a source close to Obama told Politico. "Chuck is just doing his job. He wants to exempt the military from the sequester, and that's understandable. But we're looking to get rid of the sequester across the board."

Politico also notes that Hagel is facing a set of challenges within the Pentagon itself, including finding a replacement for top deputy secretary Ashton Carter, who is leaving the Pentagon at the end of the year. Hagel is reportedly still interviewing people for the job, but Politico reports that Robert Work, a former undersecretary of the Navy, is considered the top candidate.

"To some extent you are seeing the Clinton effect," an unnamed former defense official told Politico, explaining why filling important positions at the Pentagon may be difficult. "Why take the risks of working in a second Obama administration when you can make $300,000 in the private sector and then go work for Hillary?"

Still, dealing with the budget cuts will be Hagel's most pressing and constant challenge, and that may eventually lead to a more public conflict with the president, according to Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who voted against Hagel during his confirmation.

"The first thing he's got to do is confront the political team in the White House, which is asserting too much influence over policy decisions," Sessions told Politico. "I just think it's his duty to speak the truth to the president and stand up, and you can't just always continue in office if you are asked to execute a policy that you truly believe is harmful. You have to make up your mind if you should stay or leave."

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