Senator Lindsey Graham’s skewering yesterday of former senator and prospective defense secretary Chuck Hagel over the latter’s comments about the “Jewish lobby” and its ability to “intimidate” members of Congress will certainly go down in the history of confirmation hearings as a Top Ten moment. But somewhat obscured by that exchange was Senator Graham’s previous question to Hagel about the size of the defense budget relative to the country’s GDP. Hagel, clearly guessing, answered: “Well, we are, I think, it is probably 5% in that area.” Well, actually, it’s not Mr. Hagel. The national defense budget is 4% of GDP, with war funding included, and the base defense budget is only 3.4%. No wonder Chuck Hagel thinks, as he is quoted as saying, the Defense Department is “bloated.”
But of course, Hagel was saying the department was bloated after the Obama administration had already cut almost $400 billion from current and planned defense expenditures and in the face of the hundreds of billions more in proposed cuts by the 2011 Budget Control Act. And he was doing so in spite of the current defense secretary, Leon Panetta, arguing that such additional cuts would be disastrous to US security.
Financial Times: “On this Joint Committee that’s being created, Leon Panetta, our defense secretary, has warned of really dire consequences to U.S. national security if this so-called trigger gets pulled, in which case we would see $600 billion in automatic cuts to the Defense Department. Do you agree with his assessment that that would be very harmful to national security?”
Hagel: “Defense Department, I think, in many ways, has been bloated. So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time.”
At yesterday’s hearing, Hagel said his comment about the Pentagon being bloated came before passage of the Budget Control Act—an assertion that a) isn’t true (The Budget Control Act was enacted in early August 2011, while Hagel’s interview with the FT took place on September 1, 2011) and b) in the context of the question, suggests Hagel gave little credence to Panetta’s concerns.
There are, as the hearings have revealed, plenty of reasons to doubt whether the Senate should confirm Chuck Hagel as the next defense secretary. But not the least of them is his obvious lack of knowledge about the most fundamental of defense matters and, no less, his seeming flippancy when it comes to making judgments about the state of the American military.