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Some tough questions for Hagel

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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Senators next week will pose questions to Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of Defense. Hopefully, they will pose more than the gotcha questions that require the former senator from Nebraska to explain his past statements about Iran, Israel, gays and the “bloated” Pentagon budget.

The purpose of the Senate Armed Services Committee's confirmation hearing should be more than showing how much support and opposition Hagel has. It can be an opportunity for Hagel to explain his views on other defense policies and for senators to educate him about what else is bothering them.

Last week, at the U.S. Army garrison in Vicenza, Italy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out what could be a primer on issues that Hagel should be asked about.

The questions could start with how Hagel sees reaching what Panetta described as leaner, smaller, more agile forces on the cutting edge of technology that have “the ability to deploy quickly, the ability to engage an enemy on a fast basis.”

One hot potato: The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission statute would require Hagel as Defense secretary to propose changes to the pay, benefits, pensions and health care of future service members — as the cost of the current all-volunteer force appears to be unsustainable.

Panetta said, “We're going to need to invest in the ability to mobilize quickly, to maintain a strong reserve, to maintain a strong National Guard.”

Does Hagel see increasing the size of the Guard and reserves as a way of reducing the more costly active volunteer force?

Panetta stated that under the new Obama strategy, “we've got to be able to defeat more than one enemy at a time,” positing “a war in Korea and, at the same time, having to deal with somebody that closes the Strait of Hormuz,” meaning Iran.

Iran has a larger population than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, so does Hagel agree with Panetta that “we've got to be able to fight in both places, and we have that capability, and we have to maintain that”?

Given the world situation, why not ask Hagel about his criteria for recommending to President Obama when to introduce U.S. military forces into life-threatening operations? When does he believe a situation calls for the United States to supply logistical support (Libya and now apparently Mali) and when would he propose boots on the ground?

Panetta told the troops in Italy, “The greatest threat I face right now, and the military officers that I serve with agree ... is continuing uncertainty in Washington” about the budget. He said he saw March as a “perfect storm” when fiscal 2013 funds run out and deep cuts could occur.

He then compared the risks the military takes with what faces “elected officials.” He meant members of Congress who “we're asking ... to take a small part of the risk that ... they'll (anger) some constituents.”

Panetta said, as he has before, “I keep telling them ... if I've got men and women in uniform that put their lives on the line in order to fight for this country, ... you can have a small bit of the courage they have to do what you have to do.”

Will Hagel, too, make that challenge to Congress?

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post.

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