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What a Defense Secretary Does

Pace Hagel, it’s a policy-making job.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By DAN SENOR
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Of course decisions on development cut both ways. The secretary of defense has the power to kill multibillion-dollar projects that he believes represent a drag on the budget. He does so with minimal White House oversight. Consider the A-12 Avenger II, a proposed carrier-based stealth bomber replacement for the A-6 Intruder. Its development—begun under President Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, in 1984—was plagued by ever-expanding costs and delays. In December 1990 Secretary Dick Cheney asked the Navy to justify a program that had cost some $5 billion. Dissatisfied with the response, Cheney pulled the plug. As he explained at the time, “It was not an easy decision to make. .  .  . But no one could tell me how much the program was going to cost .  .  . or when it would be available.” Decisions on technology, on systems and weaponry, on the range of capabilities that the U.S. military will have available going forward are decisions often made by the defense secretary alone.

The most that can be said in favor of Chuck Hagel’s nomination is that his hands will be tied, that he won’t have much scope to affect policy. But no one should be under any illusions: If Chuck Hagel becomes secretary of defense, he will be captain of the Pentagon ship, choosing its crew and charting its course. The decisions he makes on the job will have tremendous consequences for the wars America fights today, and perhaps an even greater impact on the wars which America might fight in the future. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, like every secretary of defense before him, will be a consequential policymaker, for better or for worse.

Dan Senor is cofounder of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served as a Department of Defense official based in Doha and Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.

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