Shadow Government

Could U.S. decline make possible an American pope?

In an interview on MSNBC with George Weigel, an expert on the Catholic Church and the author of a biography of John Paul II, on Feb. 28, the day that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took effect, Chris Matthews asked Weigel about the possibility that New York's Timothy Cardinal Dolan might be summoned to the Chair of St Peter. Matthews remarked that Dolan is an attractive candidate, "very American," "a guy's guy."

Weigel's response was interesting from a strategic perspective. He explained that in years past, there has always been an unwritten proscription on an American pope. The reasoning went, essentially, that because the United States is so powerful in the world, it should not have one of its sons rule the Church.  In many ways, this is the obverse of American fears that John F. Kennedy would collude with the Vatican to bring the U.S. under the sway of the Holy See (interestingly, Obama-supporting Catholics attacked Paul Ryan in last year's campaign by arguing that he was insufficiently attentive to Catholic social doctrine, a charge Ryan's bishop helped refute).

Behind that power calculation against an American pope, there is the long-standing suspicion as well that Americans were prone to, well, "Americanism" as it was known in Church circles in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That is, Americans are given to individualism, private conscience, and a general lack of docility. No telling what might happen if a Yank put on that ring.

But Weigel continued that this "superpower veto" is now inoperative. The United States is no longer seen as so dominant in world affairs that the Church should fear an American pope. Dolan will be looked at seriously as a candidate, Weigel believes, as will Cardinal Ouellet of Canada, whose proximity to the U.S. might have placed him under the penumbra of the superpower veto in the past. Both would offer the Church a leader capable of the kind of evangelical Catholicism that Weigel and many others see as essential and timely. 

New developments are not lightly picked up by the Catholic Church. So it would be ironic if the strategic withdrawal under President Obama, so dangerously obvious to both our enemies and friends, were also seen as so dispositive of the end of American global leadership as to convince the Cardinals that an American pope might not be a bad idea.

I'm not betting that when the white smoke goes up, Dolan or Ouellet or anybody else in particular will emerge from the coming conclave as Benedict's successor. But the consequences of American strategic decisions reverberate in all sorts of unexpected ways.

John Moore/Getty Images

National Security

Chuck, you're the secretary now

Chuck Hagel may have survived his confirmation ordeal in the Senate, but his troubles may be just beginning. Sequestration is upon us, and his department will have to find a way to minimize the impact on military operations and systems acquisition of that rightly much-maligned budget cutting vehicle. 

Hagel is fortunate to have Bob Hale as comptroller. Hale is a veteran budget expert who never loses his cool. But even Hale's expertise will not be enough to prevent the kind of wholesale damage to DOD's force posture, both today and in the future, that Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, outlined in detail many months ago. 

Hagel must also reassure allies that the United States, and its military, are not in complete disarray. That will be hard to do as long as the sequester is in force. Nor does it help that the United States already has but one aircraft carrier deployed overseas. Not only does that signal America's inability to maintain 24-hour sea-based aircraft operations from the onset of a crisis, it also feeds the worst fears of allies and friends that the United States is slowly, but inexorably, turning inward.

If friends will be worried, as they already are, enemies will exult. The conclusion that Iranians, North Koreans, Venezuelans, and an array of Islamic terrorist groups, not least of which is Hezbollah, will reach is that Washington does not have the clout it once did and that the door to further mischief is wide open. Rivals such as China and Russia will likewise conclude that they can pursue their interests far more aggressively, without any credible American pushback. And fence-sitters like India will be even more reluctant to welcome an American embrace. 

What can Hagel do to stop the rot? In the short term, he could voice his support for a Republican proposal to exempt DOD from sustaining its cuts across-the-board and empower Hale and his team of budget managers to allocate those cuts in a way least harmful to operations and acquisition. For the longer term, Hagel should articulate a clear message about not only the impact of further cuts to defense, but also his determination to ensure that long-standing barriers to efficient defense spending, such as the depression-era Davis-Bacon Act, or the Jones Act, which for decades has undermined the efficiency of the shipbuilding industry and has resulted in driving up the costs of naval construction, should finally be shoved aside.

Hagel could also call for raising the ceilings on reprogramming requests, which limit the comptroller's ability to manage DOD's cash efficiently; for funding an internal DOD audit capability to ensure that funds are not held in "reserve" by bureaucrats who then spend that money wastefully at the close of the fiscal year; and for real caps on spiraling defense health care costs. 

If ever there was an opportunity to remove the barnacles that have hung onto the DOD budget for so long, it is now. An efficiently managed DOD budget would at least to some degree soften the impact on force readiness and modernization of further massive cuts that the Obama administration, driven more by ideology than economics, erroneously concludes are central to the budget deficit. It might also help mitigate the damage that has already been done to America's credibility as a reliable ally for the long term and as a force that its enemies must reckon with in the short-term as well. 

Hagel has forcefully asserted that the department spends its money inefficiently. He is now secretary of defense. He can do something about it and should do so now. He has no time to spare.