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Hagel at the Helm

Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
March 5, 2013
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Senator Chuck Hagel was recently sworn in as the 24th U.S. Secretary of Defense. He has a tough job ahead of him. Unlike his predecessor, Leon Panetta, Hagel did not receive a 100-to-0 vote in his confirmation vote. Rather his 58 affirmative votes, with 41 against, were the lowest in history due to hurt feelings among his fellow Republicans that Hagel had been a disloyal carrier of their agenda. He also faces major regional security challenges in Asia and beyond. But perhaps Hagel’s most serious challenge lies in his budget battles at home. 

Richard Weitz

Richard Weitz

Successful managing the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is perhaps Hagel’s most urgent task. The fundamental issue is how fast U.S. and NATO troops will leave the country and what Afghan conditions and regional security structure will remain. No matter how effectively U.S. forces implement their strategy and tactics, they cannot win the war alone. China’s help here, especially in managing Pakistan, would be sorely welcome. 

Another priority may be Africa, which has received less attention than might be expected under the Obama administration, but some with close ties to traffickers and Al-Qaida, all the way from Somalia in the Horn of Africa to Mali. They all exploit poorly governed places and develop coordinate planning training, and weapons. As the Pentagon is withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence in Africa will increase. Much of their effort will be designed to prevent terrorists and insurgencies from taking root in vulnerable African countries. The Chinese military and economic entities there can help address that problem. 

Iran looks to remain another enduring nonproliferation problem for the new Obama administration. The recent talks In Kazakhstan made only modest progress. Losing its ally in Syria will make the Iranian regime feel even more beleaguered, reinforcing the problem of Obama’s first term--that the United States lacks a “good” (one open to compromises and able to secure them domestically against powerful hardliners) Iranian negotiating partner. The sanctions have achieved great success in disrupting the Iranian economy and rallying the international community against Tehran’s nuclear activities, but they have not seriously slowed Iran’s growing nuclear weapons potential. Yet, the United States and other allies recognize that using military force in an attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear program could easily fail and possibly backfire. China can help avert an unwanted war in the Gulf by pressing Tehran hard to reign it its unneeded nuclear program. 

In Asia, the most immediate nuclear threat emanates from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Korea has detonated three nuclear explosive devices already and is aiming to make small nuclear warheads that can be launched on the DPRK’s improving ballistic missile capacities. Left unchecked, the DPRK could have an intercontinental ballistic with sufficient range to hit targets in North America within five years. But the Korean Peninsula is also a land of lousy Pentagon options. The Obama administration achieved remarkable successes in securing international sanctions against North Korea for its proliferation activities, but recent UN reports indicate that the sanctions are not being applied effectively. Some Chinese entities have been implicated in assisting this effort. 

Hagel will need to reassure Japan about its territorial disputes with China, Russia, and perhaps South Korea. The dispute with the PRC over the Senkaku islands is the most prone to actual conflict since in this case Japan occupies the islands but the Chinese (who claim them as the Diaoyu islands) have recently become more assertive in asserting their growing military capabilities to press the PRC’s maritime territorial claims. More generally, the Japanese have been perhaps the country perhaps most uneasy about the growing economic and military power of the PRC. 

The last year saw decent Sino-American ties since both Beijing and Washington were preoccupied with their leadership transitions. But China-U.S. defense ties still lag behind the two countries’ economic and diplomatic relations. The Pentagon remains as divided as other Americans regarding whether China represents a potential partner or problem for each of the many issues in our relationship. 

The Obama administration has tried to avoid confronting China directly by emphasizing general principles—freedom of the sea, peaceful settlement of territorial disputes, etc.—rather than pursuing policies designed explicitly to counter China. Nonetheless, PRC policy makers accuse the United States of stirring up trouble in their backyard. They complain about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. missile defense deployments in Asia, and U.S. diplomatic interventions in Beijing’s maritime territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and other countries. 

The administration has yet to find a robust balance between deterring without alarming Beijing, or assuring its allies and friends that the United States would neither abandon them to China’s growing might nor entrap them in an unwanted confrontation with Beijing. Except in Beijing, Asian leaders have generally welcomed the renewed U.S. security presence and its increasing role in the region, but they have also taken pains to avoid being seen as siding with the United States against China. 

Finally, Secretary Hagel must address the main obstacle to realizing these plans: the requirement to shed billions of dollars from the Pentagon budget in coming years. Regardless of how the president and Congress solve this year’s budget crises, U.S. national defense spending is expected to decrease substantially in coming years as the U.S. military ceases involvement in major foreign wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is in a long-term defense drawdown complicated by the rising costs of weapons systems and services (healthcare) that is squeezing manpower, operations, and investment. 

Even more than further increases in the Pentagon’s budget, the United States needs to “rebalance the rebalance”—in other words, to augment the non-military elements of its national security policies, especially in Asia, by increasing the resources available to the U.S. civilian national security agencies. China can help here to by helping promote regional stability in Asia and global economic recovery. 

Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.

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