Chuck Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, speaks during the announcement of his nomination for Secretary of Defense, in the East Room of the White House. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg
Chuck Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, speaks during the announcement of his nomination for Secretary of Defense, in the East Room of the White House. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

A president should be allowed to assemble the Cabinet he wants, barring any egregious disqualifying transgression. Thus the U.S. Senate should confirm Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama’s next defense secretary.

However, given Hagel’s past positions and statements, his former Senate colleagues on the Armed Services Committee would do well to fulfill the “advise” portion of their role in confirmations and demand detailed answers to tough questions during this week’s hearing. We might end up knowing not just where Hagel stands on hot-button issues, but get a much better feel for the Obama administration’s second-term foreign policy and national security agenda.

The acrimonious spat over Hagel’s nomination has been ill-served through its focus on whether his years-old reference to a “Jewish lobby” indicated he is anti-Semitic. Despite some intemperate remarks, notably over the plight of the Palestinians, Hagel’s legislative support for Israel gives us no reason to think so.

Unilateral Sanctions

Another controversy, over his opposition as a Republican senator in the 1990s to a gay man serving as a U.S. ambassador, is slightly more relevant given the changing nature of the post-“don’t ask, don’t tell” armed forces, but still constitutes a distraction.

So, senators, focus instead on the central issues that Hagel will shape policy over: countering Iran, combating nuclear proliferation, downsizing the military and putting U.S. boots on the ground in conflicts.

Twice in his Senate career -- in 2001 and 2008 -- Hagel was one of only two votes opposing unilateral financial sanctions against Iran; he objected to labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group; and he has called for “direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with Iran.” He even wrote that a nuclear-armed Iran might have a silver lining, as states with atomic weapons “will often respond with some degree of responsible, or at least sane, behavior.” For someone who bills himself as a foreign policy “realist,” that seems like wishful fantasizing. The concern is not simply that a nuclearized Iran would bomb Tel Aviv, but that it would severely tilt the power balance in the Middle East against U.S. interests and global peace.

While we have no objections to unconditional talks with Iran, sanctions should be ramped up until the regime in Tehran satisfies the requests of the International Atomic Energy Agency and takes verifiable steps away from its military atomic program. And though Hagel is correct that multilateral sanctions are best, sometimes acting alone is vital. Hagel should be asked if he regrets his anti-sanction votes and if he supports the Obama administration’s laudable actions to increase pressure and get our European allies on board. We are particularly interested in his opinion on the sanctions against Iran’s state-controlled energy sector in the Defense Authorization Act signed by Obama this month.

Hagel is also taking heat for having signed on to Global Zero, a bipartisan group of veteran political, diplomatic and military figures advocating the eradication of nuclear arms. Obama, too, says he shares that goal, and neither man is advocating unilateral disarmament. The question is what path Hagel recommends, and what near-term changes the Pentagon should make. Given budget constraints and the lack of a superpower threat, we advocate big cuts to our Cold-War-era intercontinental missile program and high-yield warheads, to be balanced by increasing tactical nuclear capabilities more appropriate for today’s asymmetrical threats.

Stopping Boondoggles

Hagel’s version of realism seems to be marked by an extreme hesitancy to use force, at least in anything other than protecting the most vital U.S. interests. That vision is hard to square with his Senate votes in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq but against the surge four years later -- on both counts he, like incoming Secretary of State John Kerry, rejected the advice of leading realists such as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Does he regret those votes today? What has the experience taught him in terms of, say, how the U.S. should handle the crises in Syria and Mali?

Of course, the biggest war facing the next defense secretary is against budget bulge. The traditional military response to belt tightening is to share the pain by cutting programs across the board. The committee should ask Hagel if he has considered the smarter course of exercising budgetary triage.

There are many less-vital programs and outright boondoggles that could be pared back significantly or even shuttered -- the Marine version of the F-35 fighter, for example, or the Navy’s troubled littoral combat ship. That is, if a secretary was willing to take on the entrenched interests that keep them alive. And it’s not just hardware: Would a Secretary Hagel consider major cuts in force size, something Obama has shied away from? After all, as we saw after the Sept. 11 attacks, the military can increase manpower in a hurry during a crisis, while procurement programs take longer to start or resuscitate.

Last, according to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Hagel said in 2011 that “the president has not had commander-in-chief control of the Pentagon” since at least 1992. He shouldn’t be confirmed until he provides the context. It would be very worrying if he has seen the military as some sort of renegade institution with its own agenda. If, on the other hand, he meant he is set to challenge the institutional status quo by looking at all options to downsize and still meet future threats -- something his predecessors Les Aspin in 1993 and Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 tried and failed to do -- then we wish him luck.

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