Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE). (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
By Tom Vanden Brook
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel started his first day on the job by telling Pentagon military and civilian leaders Wednesday that the military faces tremendous challenges, has made mistakes but remains "a force for good."
Hagel pointed to the looming budget crisis, the need to extend benefits to all military employees without discrimination and the need to work with allies. Hagel was sworn in at 8:15 a.m. to succeed Leon Panetta to lead the U.S. military.
He won Senate confirmation late Tuesday after weeks of contentious debate. Members of his own Republican party accused him of being too tepid in his support of Israel, too cozy with Iran and too willing to dismantle the U.S. nuclear arsenal. They also ripped him for opposing the 2007 surge of troops in Iraq that helped reduce violence there.
Republican took the unprecedented move of filibustering the nomination of Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska. That delayed the confirmation vote by a week. In the end, he won 58 votes for confirmation, including four Republicans.
Hagel plunges into a budget crisis in which the Pentagon must cut 9% of its budget -- about $46 billion -- over the next seven months. That is the result of automatic spending cuts required by the sequester, the budget-reduction mechanism that will be triggered March 1 unless Congress and the White House reach an agreement to rein in the federal deficit. Another problem affecting the Pentagon budget is the failure of Congress to approve a spending plan for 2013, leaving in place the 2012 budget that hinders the Pentagon's ability to shift money to high-priority areas such as training and maintenance.
"I don't need to dwell on all the good news there," Hagel joked. "That's a reality. We need to figure it out."
He briefly referred to two issues of primary concern to the military in recent months: extension of benefits to same-sex couples and opening all combat jobs to women.
Everybody should be treated fairly and honestly, Hagel said. "No discrimination anywhere, in any way."
He also addressed the need to work with other countries, saying the United States needed to engage, not "dictate," when dealing with allies. Conservatives have criticized the Obama administration for not being assertive enough, particularly in Libya.
"We must lead with our allies," Hagel said. "No nation can do any of this alone."
Hagel is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, and one of the few enlisted men to serve as Defense secretary. He joked that seeing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno seated near the front of the Pentagon auditorium made him shake.
After his brief remarks, delivered without notes, Hagel thanked the troops and civilians for their service.
"Now, I've got got to go to work," he said.