Today, 28 NATO defense ministers will meet to discuss bringing the war in Afghanistan to a responsible close. They will talk strategy, troop deployments and continued training of Afghanistan’s forces. They will not, however, be talking to America’s next Defense secretary.
That’s because the likely next secretary of Defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), will not be at the summit. He did not miss a plane; he was not called to a last-minute national security briefing; he was not urgently required to attend to developments in the Middle East. Instead, a vote to confirm him was sidelined due to political obstructionism by a small group of Republican senators. The 66,000 U.S. troops that remain on the ground in Afghanistan — along with the rest of our Armed Forces and the Americans they protect — deserve a secretary of Defense, not political theater.
This is not idle praise. Hagel’s understanding of the military is informed by his service to this country. He earned two Purple Hearts as a volunteer infantry squad leader in the Vietnam War. When a land mine exploded and nearly killed his younger brother, Hagel dragged him to safety, suffering blown eardrums and severe burns. Reflecting on that experience, he noted, “I’m not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process.” Contrary to some of his critics, Hagel will not shoot first and ask questions later on issues of war and peace.
The broad bipartisan support for Hagel is not just for his commendable service, but also for his nuanced understanding of America’s role in a post Cold War world. As a nuclear engineer myself, who has seen how dramatically the threats we face and tools we need to confront them have changed over the past few decades, I find this especially important. With the rise of terrorism and cyber war, modern warfare has changed. Hagel understands this new landscape. He knows that the strength of America’s military does not ultimately lie in the dollars spent at the Pentagon, but in the spirit of American ingenuity to efficiently adapt to confront changing times. He is a staunch supporter of Israel and an ardent fighter against wasteful government spending ill-suited to meet modern threats.
Despite all of this, Hagel’s nomination has been caught up in a political maelstrom, a result of efforts by some senators to prove their partisan bona fides to avoid primary challenges and by others intent on wounding our newly reelected president. Not only did Senate Republicans take the unprecedented measure of filibustering Hagel, but they filibustered the nominee for secretary of Defense: not over his positions, but in an effort to get the White House to turn over even more documents on Benghazi. Hagel has answered all questions asked of him, and our troops and country need a secretary steering the Defense Department.
Partisanship is increasingly rampant in Washington these days, and it’s no surprise that senators would posture to appease their base before a primary. But we have hit a new low when senators start endangering our troops and playing politics with our national security. With automatic-spending reductions at the Pentagon and nuclear negotiations with Iran looming large in the weeks ahead, it’s time to bring to a swift close to the irresponsible process that has marred the debate over our next Defense secretary. No matter where you stand, Hagel deserves a swift vote in the Senate.
Blunt commanded the 97th Army Reserve Command and has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and held the career designator of Atomic Energy Officer.