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Politico's weak case against Hagel

As Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings to be defense secretary kicked off Thursday, Politico made a game attempt to stoke concern over his lack of
Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel. (Kyodo via AP Images)
Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel.

As Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings to be defense secretary kicked off Thursday, Politico made a game attempt to stoke concern over his lack of bureaucratic and managerial experience, asking whether he’s qualified to lead the Pentagon.

The only problem? Politico couldn’t find any actual experts who see Hagel’s experience as a problem. So instead, it quoted a Republican activist—then featured the story for much of the morning.

Titled “Is Hagel up to the job?,” the story, by reporter Stephanie Gaskell, kicks off by declaring: “There’s not much on Chuck Hagel’s résumé that screams secretary of defense.”

It continues:

Defense experts say Hagel, if confirmed, will face major challenges in wrangling a sprawling institution and working with partners to implement President Barack Obama’s policies. That would be the case for anyone taking the top civilian defense post, but Hagel would walk in without the bureaucratic expertise of his predecessors.

But Politico can find only one person who thinks Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran, might not be qualified. And if he’s a defense expert, he’s not exactly an authoritative one.

“America is at a delicate moment of transition in defense policy and spending,” Pete Hegseth tells Politico. “Sen. Hagel has not proposed serious alternatives during these, or other, defense policy fights; nor has he made any significant contribution—either in office or out—to the even more fundamental questions about the future of U.S. defense posture, the shape and function of the defense establishment, or chronic and complicated spending problems at the Pentagon.”

Hegseth calls Hagel “the wrong man at the wrong time to lead the Department of Defense,”

Politico identifies Hegseth as the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, which sounds like a generic veterans advocacy group. In fact, since its founding last year, the group has devoted much of its focus to criticizing President Obama over the deficit and on national security issues. As we reported last September, it also joined a lawsuit supporting Ohio’s Republican government in its effort to reduce voting hours for non-military voters. Its website features repostings of opinion columns from conservative outlets like The Daily Caller and Human Events.

Hegseth, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, ran unsuccessfully last year for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. His previous group, Vets for Freedom, ran a multi-million dollar ad campaign criticizing Barack Obama on the Iraq war.

There are some actual defense experts quoted in the piece. But none of them say they’re bothered by Hagel’s resume.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says Hagel’s “contrarian thinking” on Iran (he’s skeptical about the benefits of an attack, which in Washington makes him a “contrarian”) could be valuable.

Bill White, who Politico tells us was once a candidate for Navy Secretary, says his top concern really is that the next defense secretary be able to handle the mammoth Pentagon bureaucracy, but that Hagel is “perfect for that.”

So to recap: Only one person who thinks Hagel doesn’t have the right experience for the job. And he’s not exactly a respected defense expert.

Of course, there’s much more to the anti-Hagel campaign than the “résumé” issue. But many of the attacks—that he’s an anti-Semite because he once said “Jewish lobby,” for instance—seem to have lost their traction. If this is the best Hagel’s critics can do, he’s probably home and dry.