Trying to head off a stampede to the exits, the White House insists that Chuck Hagel — his disastrous Senate hearing notwithstanding — has the votes to become defense secretary.

Maybe, but Hagel’s stumbling and incoherent statements should worry President Obama.

Does the president really want someone who has so little knowledge and inspires so little confidence running the Pentagon in a time of turmoil?

Before the hearing, I assumed Hagel would encounter sharp questioning from Republicans because of his record, but would ultimately prevail.

Most senators believe presidents are entitled to the Cabinet of their choosing, within reason.

But that is in doubt because of Hagel’s terrible performance. He appeared both obtuse and evasive. Answers that reversed past statements and votes on Iran lacked conviction, making it difficult to know what he truly believes.

When he volunteered that “there are a lot of things I don’t know about” and “it doesn’t matter what I think,” he seemed worse than ignorant. He looked content to be a cipher, a man who does nothing until his phone rings with orders from the Oval Office.

That’s not good enough for the person charged with leading our armed forces. The continuing combat in Afghanistan, the rise of al Qaeda in Africa and the attack on our embassy in Turkey are reminders that we remain at war, no matter that Obama says otherwise.

The main reason Obama nominated Hagel — their shared eagerness to slash the defense budget — is a bad enough idea. Incompetence could turn the slashing into a calamity.

Let Hagel find another job he doesn’t know or care about.