"I was misquoted again," Hagel blurted out, without saying what he was misquoted about or who did the misquoting.
When the laughter subsided, Hagel mentioned his press secretary, George Little, who was in the audience. "He likes that kind of response," Hagel said. "'Keep your answers short,' he says. 'And deny like hell.'"
Hagel was taking the advice to heart in his address to the National Defense University.
The former Republican senator from Nebraska was being so careful, in fact, that he hardly deviated from his prepared text. He read so closely, stealing only furtive glances at the audience, that he looked like a novice swimmer gasping for air between strokes.
Just five weeks into his new post, Hagel can't afford to mess up.
The gaffe patrol is on high alert after his rocky confirmation hearing, in which Hagel described the Iranian regime as "legitimate" and misstated the United States' policy on Iran's nuclear program. And, since getting the job, he has had to confront multiple crises. His first trip as secretary, to Afghanistan, went awry when the erratic Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said the United States was in cahoots with the Taliban. Bellicose pronouncements out of North Korea have led Hagel's Pentagon to boost missile defenses and to fly stealth fighter jets over South Korea.
At the same time, there is turmoil in Washington. A couple of days after Hagel took office, the sequester lopped about $41 billion off the military's current budget, and President Obama's 2014 budget, expected next week, is likely to seek smaller but permanent spending cuts. Hence Hagel's speech Wednesday was a call for dramatic shrinkage of the military.
Of the domestic and foreign threats, the former may be tougher.
Hagel warned of the "spiraling costs" of the military's structure, its benefits and new weapons development. He echoed warnings that without vast spending reductions, the Pentagon could become "an agency administering benefit programs, capable of buying only limited quantities of irrelevant and overpriced equipment."
The Vietnam War sergeant drew a bull's-eye around top brass, saying the military could learn from the private sector, which found that "reducing layers of upper and middle management not only reduced costs and micromanagement, it also led to more agile and effective organizations and more empowered junior leaders."
"Today the operational forces of the military -- measured in battalions, ships and aircraft wings -- have shrunk dramatically since the Cold War, yet the three- and four-star command and support structures sitting atop these smaller fighting forces have stayed intact ... and, in some cases, they are actually increasing," Hagel said, also proposing "to pare back the world's largest back office."
This drew laughter from the young officers in the audience.
If Sgt. Hagel is serious about thinning the ranks of senior officers, the resulting fight could define his tenure as secretary. Already, he has set up regular lunches with junior enlisted personnel and visited the Army sergeant major's office. In his speech, he made several references to his status as an enlisted man.
Hagel's cautious, monotone delivery made the speech a sleepy affair, and the listeners -- in navy, black or green uniforms with chests full of ribbons -- reacted little. But as is often the case with Hagel, things got interesting when he went off script, while taking questions.
Asked about China, he said, "I think the Chinese have shown their leadership to be steady, wise, careful." Political prisoners might take a different view. The secretary also had sanguine thoughts about Egypt, which has become increasingly repressive and hostile: "If we would not have had the strong military-to-military relationship with Egypt, I'm not sure things would have turned out the same in Egypt over the last two years."
He meandered from there to something about sewer commissioners before observing that "I am a bit far afield -- but I am a former senator."
The man who can't afford to make mistakes was getting into dangerous territory. The final questioner, a German colonel, suggested that Hagel "delay the delivery of a warship or a tank" and instead pay for young American officers to travel. The audience applauded heartily.
"Colonel, you are well on your way to making general," Hagel said, then considered his options for answering. "That's a magnificent way to end this," he said -- and left the stage.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.
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