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Hagel pick telegraphs weakness

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Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Bret Stephens is the foreign affairs columnist and a deputy editorial page editor for The Wall Street Journal. Stephens spoke to the Trib regarding the implications of former Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska becoming Defense secretary.

Q: You recently wrote a column on Hagel that essentially labeled him a mediocrity. What makes you think he doesn't deserve the reputation of being a latter-day Dwight Eisenhower?

A: I think it was very difficult for any fair-minded observer, Republican or Democrat or in between, to look at (Hagel's confirmation hearing) and think that there is a man superbly qualified to take the job of the secretary of Defense. There are a lot of jobs in Washington that you can pretty much bluff your way through. If you are a bad secretary of Commerce, the republic will survive. If you are a bad secretary of Transportation, people probably aren't going to notice unless you are really egregious. Secretary of Defense is one job in Washington that is a non-BS job. It's not a job for guys whose specialty, when it comes to defense issues, is going on Sunday talk shows and delighting in the fact they are the contrarian Republican.

Q: Was it startling to you during the confirmation hearing that Hagel said he didn't even consider Defense secretary to be a policymaking position?

A: That was the most astonishing comment, wasn't it? It's hard to think of a more important job in Washington. The secretary of Defense is in the national command authority in the event of a nuclear war, and he's saying, “I'm really not going to matter all that much.” Well then, who is going to matter more? The president, obviously, but who else?

Q: How do you believe Hagel's ascension to Defense secretary would be viewed by other nations, particularly Israel?

A: The choice of a secretary of Defense is also, in a sense, an act of diplomacy. Our allies and our adversaries around the world look to see who the president has picked and ask themselves what that pick says about the president's foreign policy priorities.

If you are an Israeli decision maker, you look at a Chuck Hagel pick and you think, “I think this means that when the president says he is serious about a prevention policy toward Iran, he really doesn't mean it.” (Obama) has just picked a secretary who seems to be unaware that there is a prevention policy and who further has a long paper record of opposing any kind of military strikes against the Iranians. So the Israeli calculation becomes, “Maybe we should freelance our security, maybe we should do it on our own, because we're not sure (Obama) has our back.”

Q: Do you get the sense that some countries believe the U.S. is about to install in a position of strength a person of significant weakness?

A: If I were sitting in a defense ministry in Tehran or Beijing or Moscow, I would be taking heart from Hagel's nomination. If I were in their shoes, that would be the conclusion I would draw.

Q: What do you think happens when Hagel presumably gets the job?

A: I would say that with Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense, America becomes a less secure country. Our enemies become bolder, our friends become disheartened.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

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