Senate hearings on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary will be a distinctive Washington entertainment, a donnybrook without drama. He should be confirmed: Presidents are due substantial deference in selecting Cabinet members because they administer presidential policies, and unlike judicial appointments, they leave when their nominators do.
Hagel will be confirmed because Sen. Chuck Schumer, after hesitating theatrically enough to propitiate supporters of Israel, of whom there are many among his New York constituents, will not oppose Hagel. Opposition would end Schumer's hope to make the nation nostalgic for Harry Reid by succeeding him as Senate Democratic leader. Still, the hearings will be sound and fury signifying renewed interest in national security policy, which can be illuminated by Hagel addressing questions like these:
In 1997, 28 years after you returned from Vietnam with two Purple Hearts, we heard a May 27, 1964, taped telephone conversation in which President Lyndon Johnson said to his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy: "I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out." Johnson also said: "What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country?" At the time, there were only 16,000 U.S. forces in Vietnam, where there had been only 266 U.S. deaths. The U.S. deployment would peak at more than 500,000 in 1969 and 58,000 would die there. How did this tape, and Vietnam generally, shape your thinking?
Your critics say that you managed to be wrong on Iraq twice, by supporting the 2003 invasion and by opposing the 2007 surge. If the surge had not happened, what would have happened in Iraq?
How many sorties, including attacks on Iran's air defense systems, would be required to significantly degrade and delay Iran's nuclear program? Can Israel mount such an air campaign alone? Would you favor U.S. cooperation, with intelligence and special munitions?
Did you refuse to sign a 2006 letter urging the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization because you consider that designation inaccurate? From your 2009 endorsement of U.S. negotiations with Hamas, can we conclude that you oppose the policy of not negotiating with terrorists?
You call our sanctions against Cuba "outdated," "unrealistic," "irrelevant" and "nonsensical." What Cuba policy would you recommend?
Do you agree with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's judgment that cuts under sequestration would "hollow out the force"? Can you give examples of procurements or deployments that justify your description of the Defense Department as "bloated"?
The Navy has nine aircraft carriers. Aircraft carrier groups are the principal means of projecting U.S. power. And they are very expensive. How many should we have? How is your calculation influenced by the fact that seven weeks ago China for the first time landed a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier?
Congress' power to declare war has atrophied since it was last exercised (against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary on June 5, 1942). Should Congress authorize America's wars?
In 2011, President Obama, using a passive syntax, said our military "is being volunteered by others to carry out missions" in Libya. The original rationale for this -- before mission meander embraced regime change -- was "R2P," the responsibility to protect civilians. Do you support applying this doctrine to Syria? If removing Moammar Gaddafi was an important U.S. interest, why was it, and when did it become so? Do you dispute the illegality of Obama's ignoring the War Powers Resolution that requires military interventions to end after 60 days, absent congressional approval?
Speaking of the imperial presidency, do you believe that the use of drones to target specific individuals means presidents have an unreviewable power to kill whomever they define as enemies? Do you favor "signature strikes" wherein drones attack not identifiable individuals but groups of young males whose characteristics match the "signature" of terrorists?
In 1949, one of NATO's founders said its purpose was "to keep the Americans in (Europe), the Germans down and the Russians out.." What is its purpose now? Given that U.S. military spending is three times larger than the combined spending of NATO's other 27 members, is it not obvious that those nations feel no threat?
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Bonus question: Might fewer than 54,000 U.S. forces in Germany suffice to defend that country, or Western Europe, from whatever threat they are there to deter?