The resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel creates a golden opportunity for the new Republican majority in the Congress: not only will the hearings on Hagel’s replacement be a natural venue for reviewing the defense reductions and many retreats of the Obama years, but they provide a forum for Republicans to begin to chart a positive alternative.
That is critical for America and for the party’s prospects in 2016. Only lately – and thanks to Obama’s serial weakness on issues from Syria to Iraq to Ukraine and even China – has the Republican party reclaimed its traditional advantage as the party of peace through strength. No doubt we’ll hear plenty of criticism of Obama’s no-boots-on-the-ground-ever conduct of the ISIS war, but will we hear Republicans advancing a theory of victory? Both the Congress and the prospective defense secretary will rend garments and gnash teeth on the pernicious effects of sequestration, but will the Republicans – whose job it is to frame a budget resolution that reflects the opposition party’s priorities – be so bold as to advance a solution to the underlying problem posed by the limits imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act?
The confirmation hearings will also naturally focus on Sen. John McCain, in line to take the gavel as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has a unique position as a voice of American strength in the world, but how he will behave as committee chair and as a steward of the defense establishment is an uncertain prospect. To oversimplify only slightly, McCain has never met a foe he wasn’t willing to fight but has never met a weapons program he didn’t want to cut. McCain should realize that the armed forces have been so gutted by recent reductions that they are no longer capable of executing even the watered-down Obama defense strategy, let alone fulfilling the actual security needs of our time, in Europe, in the Middle East and in East Asia. And McCain’s “reformist” tendencies have been a skirt for Senate majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and other less-than-hawkish Republicans to hide behind. If the Republican Congress is to accomplish anything of serious purpose on defense, McCain must take a leading role, arguing without hesitation that rearmament is now more important than reform.
Despite the White House spin that the president was unsatisfied – the New York Times, almost laughably, pins the blame for the failing anti-ISIS strategy on the outgoing secretary – the need to replace Hagel comes at an unfortunate time. On a crass political level, it knocks the president’s immigration ploy out of the headlines. But it also recalls the underlying and ongoing narrative of Obama weakness, of which Chuck Hagel was a symbol. Indeed, given how Hagel loyally stuck to the White House line both on defense budget and war-related matters, he may be hard to replace.
But Obama’s weakness is not the same thing as a Republican strength. With two years still to go in the president’s term, there are limits to what Congress can do beyond saying no to Obama. But the Congress can – and is in fact constitutionally obligated to – adequately provide for America’s armed forces. The bipartisan National Defense Panel (which included former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, one of those frequently mentioned as a Hagel replacement) has already charted a path to do so by returning to the defense spending levels charted in 2011, under the last budget prepared by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. By using the panel report as a benchmark, Sen. McCain and the Republican congressional leadership can frame the upcoming hearings not simply as a referendum on Obama, but as measuring stick for the next president.