While both Republicans and Democrats accept that further cuts in defense may be inevitable, few have suggested that a reduction on the scale of the sequester is responsible. In congressional testimony delivered around the same time as Mr. Hagel’s interview, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the sequester would lead to “a severe and irreversible impact on the Navy’s future,” “a Marine Corps that’s below the end strength to support even one major contingency” and “an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk” for the Army.
Mr. Hagel was similarly isolated in his views about Iran during his time in the Senate. He repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior. The Obama administration offered diplomacy but has turned to tough sanctions as the only way to compel Iran to negotiate seriously.
Mr. Obama has said that his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that containment is not an option. Mr. Hagel has taken a different view, writing in a 2008 book that “the genie of nuclear weapons is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.” The former senator from Nebraska signed on to an op-edin The Post this September that endorsed “keeping all options on the table” for stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.
We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)
What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.