The lukewarm 58-41 endorsement that incoming secretary of defense Chuck Hagel got from the Senate draws attention to the major problem he faces as he moves into the Pentagon: How can he establish his power after an agonizing and delegitimizing confirmation period? There’s no doubt that it’s weakened him, and we can expect that the Armed Services Committee will attempt to keep him on a short leash. If he does not fight back, they’ll succeed.
What Hagel must do is find sources of strength he can use to balance the committee’s heavyweight senators. The executive branch is the most natural choice, and he’d be wise to seek the aid of like-minded individuals within it—Joe Biden springs to mind. But cultivating public support is even more vital.
To do this, he needs to keep his head down and stay away from controversial issues while racking up technocratic achievements. If he sets the right goals, he’ll appeal to his opponents and their supporters, making it harder for them to attack him.
The answer is audits.
The Defense Department is presently not able to be audited in its entirety. As shocking as this is to the uninitiated, it gets worse—the DoD has been required by law to provide annual financial statements since 1990. It has yet to comply—at first, it planned to be auditable by 1996, then by 2007; now it aims for 2017. This history of failure has been particularly galling for Congressional Republicans, who fear that the Pentagon’s money maze conceals corruption, waste and bloat. With pressure mounting on the DoD to slim down, auditability will make it more likely that cuts will be made prudently and less likely that well-run programs will be slashed while profligates prosper.
Hagel can begin the process with a public promise that he’ll hand a complete audit of the Department of Defense, or his own resignation, to the chairman of the Armed Services Committee before the next president takes the oath of office in January 2017. He can push for more of the Pentagon to be auditable before that. He can then use his public presence to promote his efforts, to call out those who resist him and to shame fraudsters he finds. Appointing a hard-charging comptroller, and making it clear that she bears his aegis, will be key. He should also warn subordinates that if they cannot deliver auditability on his timeline, he’ll find people who can—as Norm Augustine, a former secretary of the army and a great student of the defense world, put it, “A hungry dog hunts best. A hungrier dog hunts even better.”
If Hagel pulls it off, he will win the respect—and grudging support—of the Republicans on the Armed Services Committee. He’ll also get support beyond the Beltway. That will give him room to operate, room that he currently doesn’t have.