Weeks before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was sworn in, he got a homework assignment from the man sitting in the E-Ring office he would soon occupy. During a private dinner of filet mignon, corn chowder, and chocolate cake, the serving SecDef, Leon Panetta, told Hagel of an up-until-then secret, $10 billion arms deal between the United States, Israel, and two Arab countries that could amount to a strategic game-changer in the region. The terms of the deal were all but settled, but Hagel would need to be the closer, Panetta told him. Hagel's job was not only to seal the arms deal with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, but in so doing help put the "special relationship" the United States and Israel have long enjoyed back on track.
After getting that tasker from Panetta, Hagel dove in. Amid crises in North Korea, Syria, and Egypt, and fights among his top brass over an ever-shrinking piece of budgetary pie, Hagel has kept his eye on the prize: using the arms deal to rebuild a relationship with Israel that has foundered over the years. That triggered a series of "firsts," as senior U.S. defense officials call them: Hagel's first trip to an ally, after Afghanistan, was to Israel; the first foreign defense minister he called after being sworn in at the Pentagon was Israel's, the gregarious Ehud Barak; Hagel called Barak's successor, Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon, on the Israeli's first day on the job; Ya'alon's first overseas trip as defense minister was to Washington. And as Hagel and Ya'alon sat beside one another on a helicopter tour of Israel earlier this year, the two former soldiers called each other "Chuck" and "Boogie."
All this has pushed the arms deal, which includes high-tech missiles, radar systems, aerial refuelers, and, perhaps most importantly, advanced V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, up very close to the finish line. Pentagon officials insist it's basically a done deal; other individuals close to it say there are some details still on the table. Either way, when Hagel does get it across, the Obama White House will have fresh leverage in a region that's once again engulfed in turmoil. Exactly how much leverage is unclear; Hagel is also seen as the singular channel to Egyptian General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi -- who took over in Cairo despite Washington's wishes, and whose troops have begun massacring its enemies in the streets.
What really animates the arms deal is the degree to which it strengthens not only Israel's capabilities, but those of two other Arab countries against the region's biggest danger: Iran. That has thrust Hagel, already acknowledged as the administration's messenger to Egyptian leaders during that turmoil, to the fore as someone who has enough gravitas to anchor a new coalition between Israel and Arab countries.
"There's just a strategic opportunity, given Iran's threat, and given the instability in the region that we can try to help try to build a new strategic coalition, with the U.S. acting at the center, and the role Hagel has played is the strategic thinker," said one senior defense official. "I think there is a real amount of engagement and personal diplomacy that he has taken on from the beginning in really less than six months into his time as secretary of defense."