The Cable

The DOD challenges facing Chuck Hagel

As Eliot Cohen rightly pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, there is no correlation between military service and effectiveness as a senior government official. Cohen noted that neither Lincoln nor FDR had significant military experience, yet were great war leaders. One might add that Churchill's military experience in the Boer War had little to do with his later leadership of the military, except perhaps to convince him that he knew more than his generals, which no doubt was a factor in his urging the disastrous Gallipoli operation in World War I and his constant clashes with Alan Brooke, chief of the defense staff, in World War II. And then there is Jimmy Carter, whose naval background did not mitigate his mediocre performance as commander in chief during the immediate post-Vietnam era.

Chuck Hagel's ultimate record as SecDef likewise will have little to do with his service in Vietnam, distinguished though it was. If confirmed, Hagel will face some very tough challenges, even if the dreaded sequester does not come to pass, and it is on the basis of how he addresses those challenges, rather than his previous war record, that his performance as secretary will be judged.

It is all but certain that the cost of avoiding a sequester will be some level of additional defense cuts, beyond those already enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $487 billion in cuts over a 10-year period. These additional cuts could amount to some $15 billion, perhaps more. Hagel will have to decide where those cuts will be taken.

Hagel has asserted that the Pentagon budget is bloated, but has not explained exactly what he means. The administration has already signaled that it wishes to protect the personnel accounts, even if the sequester were to come into force, despite the fact that those accounts have been steadily eating into available resources for operations, research, and procurement. Will Hagel at least try to push for limits on the growth of the Defense Health Program, which is approaching an annual cost of $60 billion? He has said little on the subject and would have to face a Congress that has resisted any real changes to health benefits for the military and their families. Will Hagel throw his weight behind the new commission on military compensation and retirement, which will address not only the health program, but the entire gamut of military benefits? Again, his position on the commission is unknown.

Many analysts are assuming that Hagel really intends to reduce the size of the DOD acquisition accounts. He has not indicated which accounts might be his target. With its announcement of a "pivot" to Asia and with instability roiling the Middle East, the DOD will already be hard-pressed to meet its commitments in both of those vast regions. Will Hagel nevertheless seek to further shrink the Navy and Air Force, likely to be the most active and visible services in both areas? Would that mean a significantly smaller carrier force and the cancellation of the program for a new manned long-range bomber? Will he attempt to further reduce the size of the Army? As chairman of the board of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been especially sensitive to relations with Europe, yet the administration has announced plans to reduce land-force presence in Europe by two brigades. Will Hagel seek to reverse that decision? And will Hagel realize Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream by drastically curtailing the U.S. missile defense program at a time when America's allies have finally come to realize its importance?

Finally, would a Secretary Hagel opt for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which most observers feel would at best prompt a renewal of the civil war that only ended with the American response to the 9/11 bombings, and at worst hand it right back to the Taliban?

The foregoing are the known issues that a new secretary of defense will have to face. Then there are the "unknown unknowns" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld frequently cited. He knew of what he spoke: On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld told his Pentagon staff that the biggest challenge to the Defense Department was its own cumbersome management system. A day later he, and all of America, were confronted by a far greater challenge that has yet to be overcome.

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Shadow Government

Obama needs to put brakes on overtures to Chavismo

Even as Venezuela plunges into a constitutional crisis over Hugo Chávez's missed inauguration yesterday, State Department officials evidently think its still an ideal time to continue pressing for a normalization of diplomatic relations with the Venezuelan government, whoever that may be.

Ever since my colleague, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, disclosed last month (and at Foreign Policy here) that high-ranking department officials had begun discrete talks about exchanging ambassadors with Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro and Venezuelan Organization of American States Ambassador Roy Chaderton in November, department officials have begun to speak openly (here and here) about the effort and have shown no indication that recent events in Venezuela have dampened their enthusiasm.

Indeed, they have even doubled down on it and are now presenting their overtures as a way to get ahead of the post-Chávez curve, given the increasing likelihood that the firebrand populist will never return to power. That way, in the words of the Washington Post, they "can engage Caracas on a variety of concerns the State Department has had about the Venezuelan government's policies."

One wonders then what the rationale was in November for seeking to normalize relations, since Chávez was his usual bombastic self and showed no signs of the severity of his illness. (He soon decamped to Cuba for his reported fourth surgery for cancer and hasn't been seen or heard from since December 8th.)

In any case, the idea of unconditionally restoring diplomatic ties with the Chávez government in November is troubling enough; today, it is simply inexplicable.

As has been widely reported, Chávez missed his inauguration this week, which means, according to the Venezuelan constitution, that his current presidential term has ended. Since he was not sworn in for his new term, power is then turned over to the elected head of the National Assembly. However, the Chávez-packed Supreme Court ruled that he is still president and that his inauguration can be postponed indefinitely. That means the nominal head of government in Venezuela is Chávez's hand-picked vice president and heir, the unelected Nicolas Maduro.

But Venezuela's democratic opposition is protesting this usurpation of the constitutional process and maintaining that the head of government is the head of the legislature, Diosdado Cabello, another Chávez crony. Yet complicating matters further is that both Maduro and Cabello head different factions within Chavismo that will likely vie for power once Chávez is gone.

Is this really the most appealing scenario to attempt to restore diplomatic relations with a country that has been so radicalized, de-institutionalized, and polarized under more than a decade of Hugo Chávez? One thinks not.

No one doubts the administration's concern with Venezuela's alliances with international rogues like Iran and Syria, its complicity with narco-trafficking through its territory, and its unhelpful stance on Colombia's war against narco-terrorism, but to expect any diplomatic progress on those issues while Venezuelans aren't even sure who will be in power when they wake up in the morning is simply folly.

The administration would do better to immediately suspend overtures to Venezuelan officials, allow the uncertain transition process to play out, and support the opposition's calls for an open, transparent, and constitutional resolution to the crisis -- as well as a clean and transparent election when Chávez succumbs to cancer. Moreover, the department will soon have a new Secretary of State, presumably John Kerry. By the time he and his team are in the building the more likely it will be that they have a better understanding of who is in charge in Venezuela, and whether the environment is more inviting to attempt to make real progress with Chávez's successors on those issues that are important to U.S. security.