Chuck Hagel was sworn in Wednesday as defense secretary — President Barack Obama’s third in just over four years and the first who really wanted one of Washington’s toughest jobs.
Introducing himself to Pentagon workers shortly after taking the oath of office, Hagel said he was humbled by the opportunity and ready for the challenge. He survived a contentious confirmation process in which some Republican senators questioned his suitability for the job and suggested he lacked the character to lead the military.
“I’ll be honest, I’ll be direct, I’ll expect the same from you,” he told a standing-room-only audience of several hundred civilian Defense Department workers and members of the military. “I’ll never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do.”
He called the automatic budget cuts due to take effect on Friday — to include $46 billion in Pentagon reductions — “a reality” that “we need to deal with.”
He’ll also have to deal with the complexities of winding down the war in Afghanistan. U.S. combat troops are to fully withdraw by the end of next year, but Obama has yet to announce how many troops may stay to continue training and advising the Afghan army and targeting al-Qaida and affiliated extremist groups.
Hagel made no explicit mention of Afghanistan, but in a written statement to Pentagon employees he mentioned that 34,000 U.S. troops will come home over the coming year.
“As we turn the page on more than a decade of grinding conflict, we must broaden our attention to future threats and challenges,” he said, citing cyber warfare as an example. He also emphasized the importance he places on alliances like NATO.
“I will do everything in my power to be the kind of leader that you expect and you deserve, also, the kind of leader the country expects and deserves,” the Vietnam combat veteran said in 15 minutes of remarks in which he struck a tone of humility.
A two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel was introduced to his Pentagon audience by a fellow Nebraskan — Sgt. 1st Class John Wirth, of Gordon, Neb., an 11-year Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.
Hagel said he felt it important to take time out of his first day as defense secretary to tell the entire workforce that he looks forward to leading in tough times.
“Now I’ve got to go to work,” he said.