Since word first leaked in mid-December that Chuck Hagel was President Obama's likely choice for secretary of defense, opponents of his nomination have sought to paint him as anti-Israel, soft on Iran, and a supporter of sweeping defense budget reductions. The intensity of most of those charges has waned, with the Israel issue being dealt a seemingly fatal blow by Sen. Chuck Schumer's support for the nominee. But there is another potential hurdle -- one that sounds more appropriate to 1983 than 2013: is Hagel hawkish enough on nuclear weapons?
Hagel's Republican critics have claimed that he is "an outspoken supporter of nuclear disarmament" and "seeks a world free of nuclear weapons." Conservative media outlets have parroted these charges in their continuing attacks on Hagel and Senate Republicans are poised to make an issue out of them at his January 31 confirmation hearing. They are unlikely to succeed -- Hagel's nuclear views are mainstream. The real question is whether he'll have the opportunity to do anything about them.
As it begins its second term, the Obama administration faces a number of key nuclear and budget decisions left over from its first term that will have profound consequences for U.S. national security. If confirmed, Secretary of Defense Hagel would be a key player in formulating and implementing those choices. While it remains to be seen how vigorously the Obama administration will pursue nuclear threat reduction over the next four years, Hagel's past writings and affiliations suggest that he would strongly support reshaping U.S. nuclear strategy and spending to address today's threats and the budget crunch. Indeed, few Americans, including secretaries of defense, have thought as seriously about the appropriate role of nuclear weapons as Chuck Hagel.
Obama and Hagel actually go way back when it comes to nuclear weapons. In August 2007, when they were both senators, they co-sponsored S. 1977, known as the Nuclear Weapons Threat Reduction Act. The bill's purpose was "To provide for sustained United States leadership in a cooperative global effort to prevent nuclear terrorism, reduce global nuclear arsenals, stop the spread of nuclear weapons and related material and technology, and support the responsible and peaceful use of nuclear technology." The legislation was inspired in part by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, who earlier that year had published a now famous op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining a step-by-step plan to ultimately rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Though the Senate never voted on S. 1977, the bill served as the framework for Obama's first major foreign policy speech as president -- in April 2009 in Prague, where he pledged America's commitment to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons and laid out a series of interim steps that the United States must take to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. In his first term, Obama issued a Nuclear Posture Review that moderately reduced the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, removed some 1,380 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from around the world (enough material for approximately 55 nuclear weapons), and signed the New START agreement reducing U.S. and Russian arsenals. But key elements of this ambitious agenda remain unfinished, and the views of the next secretary of defense on how to move forward will carry significant weight.
One of the first major tasks is the revision of high-level nuclear policy guidance that could pave the way for further reductions in the arsenal below the levels agreed to in New START, which limits the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review did not reevaluate the existing nuclear employment and targeting strategy; the New START levels were based on the George W. Bush administration's guidance. Despite reports last summer indicating that there was interagency consensus about reducing the number of deployed warheads to about 1,000, Obama postponed a decision on new nuclear policy guidance and force levels until after the election.