After an unnecessarily contentious confirmation fight, the U.S. Senate has approved one of its former members, Republican Chuck Hagel, to be secretary of defense. Regardless of previous positions, Congress needs to get over the bruising battle, accept President Obama’s bipartisan outreach and work with Hagel.

Hagel will need Congress. His new job, which is difficult under any circumstances, only will be made harder by another product of polarized politics: The “sequester” — the blunt budget instrument that will hit the Pentagon hard.

Defense budget cost-cutting is to be expected, given the gradual drawdown in troops from Afghanistan and the threat that an unsustainable fiscal situation is to national security. But like all spending reductions, Pentagon cutbacks should be done strategically, not as a fundamental failure of the political process. Congress owes the American people — especially those in uniform — a more effective method.

Congress will also need to put national security above political security in allocating resources for weapons systems and military bases.

Setting priorities is critical, especially at a time of particular peril in multiple regions. Progress in Afghanistan is still tenuous, at best. Syria’s civil war is destroying that country and threatens others. Ominously, the conflict has taken on sectarian tones, and some Islamic extremists have filled the void created by global political paralysis.

Similarly, international instability grows in Africa as extremists cause chaos in Mali and other North African nations, and warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo again threatens to destabilize the region.

All of this turbulence is transpiring just as the Obama administration plans a “pivot” (or “rebalancing,” as it’s been rebranded) to Asia. Many nations in the region are looking to the United States to commit to counter the rise of China, and it’s important that Washington not send mixed signals, especially at a time of rising tension between China and some of its East Asian neighbors.

Most pressing is the reckless behavior of North Korea, which defiantly conducted yet another nuclear weapons test two weeks ago.

But it’s the potential nuclear threat from Iran that may be Hagel’s biggest test. In fact, it was this issue, in conjunction with Hagel’s previous statements regarding Israel, that most put him at odds with his former colleagues. (Hagel’s poor performance at his hearing was damaging as well.)

There is no debate over Hagel’s heroic service in Vietnam. He’s especially well-suited to understand the challenges of the nation’s many returning veterans. More specifically, he should work with Congress to more effectively address the suicide crisis facing the military.

And while Obama and John Brennan, nominated to be the next director of the CIA, will have more sway in setting policies on drone use, Hagel’s perspective will be key in debating whether the strategy advances national security or is counterproductive.

These are just the known challenges. History suggests unknown crises will test Hagel — and America.

“You will be surprised: Things will come up that you didn’t anticipate,” said James Dobbins, a former ambassador who is now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND National Defense Institute. “You [Hagel] will need to posture your forces and have sufficient flexibility in your declarative policies so you are able to meet those unanticipated challenges.”

Congress has a responsibility to ask difficult questions and push the administration for answers on defense issues. But now is the time to move beyond the confirmation rancor to national-security problem-solving.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).