By Senator John Barrasso
I recently returned from meeting in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in Afghanistan with U.S. generals and troops in the field. The discussions touched on some common themes: supporting Israel, America's strongest ally in the region, and protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East.
These talks have reinforced my understanding of the tremendous challenges the next secretary of defense will face on a range of national-security issues. Strong leadership and sound judgment will be required day in and day out.
Since Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, was nominated to be the next defense secretary, there is new attention on his many controversial statements. One of them, his remark that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" on Capitol Hill, I found to be particularly offensive and wrong.
As a senator required to provide "advice and consent" on his appointment, I recently asked Mr. Hagel about his comment. He apologized for it and explained that he was only commenting on the strength of the lobby. While I respect his apology, I can't respect his explanation. My national-security votes are based on America's national security--not lobbyists' issues, interests or intimidation.
While Mr. Hagel's troublesome and insulting words matter, his policy positions matter even more. He has a record of votes and decisions that are far outside the mainstream of foreign policy supported by both Republicans and Democrats.
Mr. Hagel was one of only two U.S. senators to oppose financial sanctions against Iran in 2001. In 2007, he wrote to President George W. Bush urging "direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with Iran." In 2008, he again was one of only two senators to vote against sanctions. That same year, he even implied, in his book "America: Our Next Chapter," that a nuclear Iran might not be so bad because countries with nuclear weapons "will often respond with some degree of responsible, or at least sane, behavior."
Since President Obama was inaugurated, Iran has moved four years closer to a nuclear weapon. The intelligence community confirmed in 2009 that Iran had been building a covert uranium enrichment facility for years--and there is no indication that the regime in Tehran can be talked out of its illicit nuclear program or its support for terrorists.
It would be incredibly naïve for anyone--much less our secretary of defense--to believe that a nuclear Iran would act responsibly. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to "wipe Israel off the map" and has supplied sophisticated weapons to insurgents who killed American troops in Iraq. This is a realistic view of the world as it is; it is not a view forced upon our elected officials by intimidating lobbyists.
On the issue of nuclear weapons, the candidate for U.S. secretary of defense actually seems more focused on eliminating American nuclear arms than eliminating the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Mr. Hagel was the co-author of a 2012 report for the group Global Zero, "Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture," that included a recommendation to eliminate the "Minuteman land-based ICBM." That could leave America dangerously vulnerable. Even Mr. Obama has promised to modernize our ICBMs, not scrap them.
Mr. Hagel's judgment has come up short on other important issues in the Middle East. He voted in favor of the Iraq War, but within a few years he had shifted with the political winds and turned against it. By late 2006, he wrote in the Washington Post: "The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed."
When President Bush announced the troop surge in Iraq, Mr. Hagel called it "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Democrats like Sen. Carl Levin who opposed the surge would later admit that it was the right decision and had helped stabilize Iraq. Mr. Hagel has not to my knowledge made a similar admission regarding the surge's success.
During my recent trip to Afghanistan, I saw that we cannot afford to pull out our troops entirely, an option the White House is reportedly considering. As secretary of defense, Mr. Hagel would advise Mr. Obama on American troop levels in Afghanistan after combat operations cease in 2014. Based on his poor judgment about troop deployments in Iraq, can we trust that he would give sound military advice on Afghanistan?
Quite apart from any particular conflict or hot spot, the Pentagon's greatest challenge may be how to protect our nation in a time of tighter budgets. On March 1, the sequester will kick in and over the next decade cut the defense budget by half a trillion dollars. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has insisted these cuts would be "devastating" and would inflict "severe damage on our national defense." Mr. Hagel, on the other hand, said in 2011 that the Pentagon is "bloated" and "needs to be pared down."
The president seems to want to install Mr. Hagel at the Pentagon so Democrats can slash the military budget and have someone else's fingerprints on the machete. Congress needs to know that it is dealing with a defense secretary who will stand strong against reckless cuts that could harm national security.
Time after time, Mr. Hagel has shown himself to be out of the mainstream on important issues related to national security. In each case, later events have shown he was wrong.
When we are faced with unpredictable national-security crises, we can't afford to have a secretary of defense who has unpredictable judgment.
Dr. Barrasso is a Republican senator from Wyoming.