Whatever happened to Chuck Hagel?

Earlier this year, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel took over the top jobs at the Department of State and the Department of Defense, respectively. Since then, Kerry has been hyper-active. But whatever happened to Hagel?

He has impinged on our consciousness only once, as Kerry’s sidekick during congressional hearings on authorizing an attack on Syria. The impingement was slight. Kerry and Gen. Dempsey did almost all of the talking. Hagel was content with silence except for an occasional misstatement of fact (the Pentagon had to walk back his claim that Russia supplies Syria with chemical weapons).

Presumably, Hagel was under orders to remain mute during the Syria hearings. The White House could ill afford a repeat of his epically awful performance during his confirmation hearing.

Hagel has impinged on the consciousness of those with whom he works at the Pentagon and in the Obama administration, but not in a positive way. That much is clear from Glenn Thrush’s article in Politico Magazine. Here are some highlights:

“How would I describe him right now? He’s a paper tiger,” says a longtime Obama campaign and White House adviser. “He’s a great guy and a war hero. The regular troops love him. It’s not quite buyer’s remorse, but he needs to show us more.”…

Months of lackluster leadership at the Pentagon might pose a key problem for Hagel [during upcoming fights over the Defense Department's budget]…

Hagel has clearly been thrown off his politician’s game by his terrible debut. He was “deeply shaken” by his self-inflicted confirmation trauma, a source who counts him as a friend told me. . .At times, he’s seemed more like a secretary on defense—an outsider squeezed between Obama’s political imperatives and the Pentagon brass he’s now surrounded by….

I wouldn’t want those comments on my performance review.

Then there’s the assessment of Tom Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize winning defense reporter. Ricks regards Hagel as “a soporific version of William Cohen,” Bill Clinton’s low-key second-term defense secretary, “another Senate Armed Services [Committee member] picked by a Dem late in the administration to keep the deck chairs from sloshing over the side.”

“A soporific version of William Cohen.” That may be the unkindest cut of all.

However, there is an upside to having a featherweight Secretary of Defense. Hagel has long talked about the need for civilian leaders to stand up to the military brass. But according to Thrush, Hagel, ever the Paper Tiger, “now finds himself increasingly motivated by [the generals'] priorities.” Thus, he is attempting to forestall defense cuts that, when added to the first round of sequester cuts, could slash as much as $100 billion a year

Unfortunately, Hagel isn’t particularly steadfast in his efforts to defense avoid cuts:

Even Hagel’s allies aren’t sure entirely how committed he is to holding the line on budget cuts, or even what that line is. He raised eyebrows among Senate Democrats in November by telling Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), “I don’t have money, but I can handle that,” during a phone conversation—which they read as a “sign of weakness,” in the words of one Democratic senator who told me about it.

That’s the downside, or one of them, to having a featherweight Secretary of Defense

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