Posted by on January 07, 2013 in Blog

Today’s big news in Washington is the announcement of President Obama’s nominations for two key foreign policy posts: former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel has been tapped to be the next Secretary of Defense and current Deputy National Security Advisor for Counterterrorism John Brennan will leave the White House to serve as director of the CIA. Both men must be confirmed by the Senate in hearings expected to begin later this month. Though both of these nominations are important in their own right, they also provide a window into the evolving foreign policy outlook of the Obama Administration. The results are decidedly mixed.

Sen. Hagel’s resume makes him seem destined to lead the Pentagon. Hagel served in Vietnam with distinction, earning two Purple Hearts. After returning home, he was a successful businessman and investment banker, and he won election to the Senate from his home state of Nebraska in 1996 and was easily reelected in 2002. As a senator, he earned a reputation as a “maverick,” though his voting record was largely conservative. Although he voted for legislation authorizing the Iraq War, he also emerged as one of the war’s earliest and most stringent critics, winning praise from liberals. Sen. Hagel pointedly compared the Iraq adventure to America’s last foreign fiasco, in Vietnam, undermining the Bush Administration’s narrative of a country happy to be liberated and on the path to democracy.

Despite his courage on the Iraq War, Hagel should not be mistaken for a closet liberal. He remained very conservative on social issues throughout his time in the Senate (including comments about a gay ambassador that he’s since apologized for), and some of his stands on defense issues place him outside the Democratic foreign policy consensus. As Spencer Ackerman points out, Hagel was an enthusiastic supporter of a law giving the federal government sweeping powers to monitor Americans’ communications.  He voted for the PATRIOT Act in 2003 and was a proponent of the Bush Administration’s plans to build a wildly expensive missile defense system.  Hagel will join a long line of Republicans elevated to key positions by President Obama (Robert Gates, Ben Bernanke and James Jones come to mind) and he will no doubt execute the policies the President chooses. Chief among these policies may be deep, and well deserved, cuts to the Pentagon’s gargantuan budget, a policy which, given his military bona fides, Hagel may be uniquely positioned to oversee. Still, despite his admirable record on Iraq, it’s important to remember that Hagel is no lefty.

More notable than Hagel’s nominations itself, though, is what the move says about the man who nominated him. In the weeks leading up to today’s announcement, Hagel was the subject of an intense campaign to define him as anti-Israel. All the usual suspects, from Bill Kristol and his Emergency Committee for Israel, to the Washington Post, to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, got in on the act. Hagel’s case is a perfect example of the oft-repeated adage that in Washington, a gaffe is when someone says the truth out loud. Hagel had told an author in 2005 that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [on Capitol Hill].” The use of “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby” was a mistake for which Hagel has apologized, but Kristol et al. were unsatisfied. Never mind that the Executive Vice President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations recently used exactly the same locution, with no outrage from Kristol. The charges of anti-Israel bias against Hagel have more to do with his opposition to the Iraq War, which touches a nerve with those who agitated for that disastrous policy, many of whom are also strong supporters of Israel. Hawks like Kristol worry that Hagel may apply the lessons of Iraq, such as “don’t invade a country you don’t understand on faulty intelligence,” to the current conflict with Iran, and thus put a damper on their plans to use the threat of military force to extract concessions from the Islamic Republic. There is also significant overlap between hawkish supporters of Israel and supporters of bloated defense budgets; Hagel is a threat to both. Given President Obama’s history of folding in the face of the intimidation against his nominees (Chas Freeman, Susan Rice, etc...) his willingness to nominate Hagel in spite of the nonsense campaign against him is a very positive sign.  

Less positive is the other nomination the President announced today: John Brennan’s elevation to Director of the CIA. Brennan was a longtime CIA officer, serving as a deputy director and as the station chief in Saudi Arabia. Since 2009, he has been President Obama chief counterterrorism advisor, overseeing the raid against Osama bin Laden and hundreds of drone strikes. As a New York Times piece revealed earlier this year, Brennan is responsible for presenting potential targets to the President, often offering his own advice about how to proceed. The Times has also revealed that, in the months before November’s election, Brennan was among the White House officials scrambling to codify some rules for the drone program in case Mitt Romney was to be the next president. The problems with the use of drones are well-known by now: they kill civilians, embitter local populations, and raise troubling questions about the power of the President to kill Americans and foreigners without due process. Perhaps most concerning, though, is that these decisions are made on ad hoc basis with no formal rules. Brennan sits at the head of this process, and now President Obama has tapped him to lead the CIA, which carries out many of the strikes. Brennan’s nomination signals an even heavier reliance on the drone war, not a reevaluation, as many had hoped. President Obama ought to be praised for standing up to Hagel’s critics, but Brennan’s nomination shows that some of the Administration’s most controversial policies are not yet up for review. 

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