WASHINGTON — In his first morning on the job, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told assembled troops and Defense Department civilians he’d live up to his reputation as a straight talker as the Pentagon confronts numerous challenges.
“You’ll always know that you have a secretary of defense that will deal straight with you,” Hagel told a Pentagon audience Wednesday in his first speech as secretary. “I’ll be honest, I’ll be direct. I’ll expect the same from you.”
The former Nebraska senator must immediately deal with the prospect of $500 billion in automatic defense spending cuts that will be triggered if the U.S. Congress doesn’t reach a deficit-cutting agreement by Friday.
“Budget, sequestration — I don’t need to dwell on all the good news there,” he said. “That’s a reality. We need to figure this out.”
The question of how to react to instability and rising threats abroad challenges the Pentagon as well, Hagel said.
“Yes dollars are coming down, but it’s the uncertainly of the planning, the uncertainly of the commitments, the uncertainty of what’s ahead,” he said.
America must continue to be the world’s leading “force for good,” he said, but must do so in concert with allies.
Hagel, whose supporters in a contentious confirmation battle called him a member of “realist” school of foreign policy, cautioned against rash foreign policy action.
“That engagement in the world should be done wisely, and the resources that we employ on behalf of our country and our allies should always be applied wisely,” he said.
Hagel promised to care for veterans as well as for military families, who, he said, “are always in a difficult spot.” As well, he promised fairness and equal benefits in a department facing questions over benefits for partners of gay and lesbian servicemembers.
The former Army infantry sergeant, who joked of his nervousness in the presence of top Army officers and enlisted leaders, told DOD employees he was proud to be “joining your team.”
“Nothing has ever made me prouder than my association with the military and the veterans,” he said.