Editor's note: Dr. Stephen Sniegoski expounds on Obama’s rationale for selecting Chuck Hagel. He goes over Hagel’s positions and those of his “realist” associates and argue that his purpose is to avoid war with Iran, but he must do this in a very cautious manner which, at least initially, involves placating the Israel lobby.
A major issue in Washington pertaining to foreign policy and national security affairs is the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Why is it so important? Just before Christmas, Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, had an insightful article in which he noted that although the persistent predictions that either there would be a US (or Israeli) strike on Iran or else the Islamic state would have a nuclear bomb had so far proven false, “there’s a good case to be made that next year (2013) will finally bring a break in the Iranian standoff — by means of a military confrontation, the appearance of an Iranian bomb or a diplomatic deal of some kind.” Obama has on numerous occasions pledged that Iran will not be allowed to reach a nuclear weapons “breakout capacity”—the point where it would be too late to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In short, Obama, by establishing this “red line,” has painted himself in a corner from which an easy escape may no longer be possible. 2013 could likely be the year when a powerful allegation, whether true or false, that Iran is about to achieve a nuclear weapons breakout capacity is thrust upon him.
“Will 2013 see action on Iran’s nuclear program?,” Washington Post, December 23, 2012
It seems apparent that Obama’s red line on Iran was basically a way of propitiating the war hawks rather than a policy that he actually believes in or, if he has his druthers, intends to actually carry out. Moreover, since Obama is currently riding high in the polls, and, as he expressed in his inaugural address, wants to focus on his domestic, liberal reform agenda, he has an especially strong interest in not changing the current political climate, which a war would obviously do. No vital American interest would be endangered no matter what Iran did in its nuclear policy, whereas a war could destroy Obama’s presidency and his popular image, comparable to what befell Lyndon Johnson in the morass of Vietnam.The military sees the war as a difficult undertaking that could not be limited to a few bombing attacks on known nuclear facilities, but rather could lead to a regional conflagration, wreaking havoc with the world economy, which is already in a tenuous condition. Anti-Americanism would flare up not only in the Middle East but throughout the world. And since it is likely that no clear-cut evidence would ever be found that Iran was actually going to develop a nuclear bomb, Obama would be condemned as a murderous imperialist in the Third World, and elsewhere among more progressive elements, where he would like to be seen as a hero.
Getting out of this war predicament, I believe, is the major—though not the only—reason for Obama’s selection of Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to be his next Secretary of Defense. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, who would be the first enlisted man to head the Defense Department, served as a US Senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009. As such, he became a friend and national security mentor to Barack Obama (who entered the Senate in 2005), despite their differences in party affiliation. Sharing a critical view of the Iraq war, they had gotten to know each other on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and developed a close friendship after they went on a trip together to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan in July 2008, where Hagel, with his combat background, took the lead in discussing military matters with the enlisted troops and officers, which very much impressed the inexperienced Obama.
Hagel, who in October 2002 voted to authorize the President to use force against Iraq, would early on in the occupation emerge as a vociferous critic of the Iraq war, ultimately co-sponsoring a resolution in 2007, with Joe Biden, opposing the “surge” and calling for a transition to a much reduced U.S. military role in that country. Moreover, he criticized the Bush administration for not engaging in any serious negotiations with Iran. And while he consistently supported Israel, he was unwilling to pay complete obeisance to the Israel lobby, being so irreverent to that powerful group as to quip: "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator"—a statement regarded as outrageous in some quarters. Taking these positions required considerable strength of character since they did not sit well with the Republican leadership, the Israel lobby, or his Nebraska constituency in which Christian Zionists loomed large.
In 2009, President Obama appointed Hagel as co-chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, which reviews various aspects of intelligence, and he is a member of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, which does likewise for national defense.
Regarding his more recent positions, in September 2012, he signed a report by the Iran Project, “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran”—whose other signatories included Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, retired Admiral William Fallon, retired General Anthony Zinni and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering—which, while professing not to offer policy recommendations, describes the consequences of an Israeli or US strike against Iran in a negative light. It contends that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would damage but not destroy Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and that “Serious costs to US interests would also be felt over the longer term . . . with problematic consequences for global and regional stability, including economic stability. A dynamic of escalation, action, and counteraction could produce serious unintended consequences that would significantly increase all of these costs and lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.”
“Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” p. 11,
While neocons and their followers have consistently attacked Hagel’s national security positions as leftist, dovish, and on the fringe, they are actually nothing of the sort. Rather, Hagel represents the so-called realist wing of the traditional foreign policy establishment, which bases its policy considerations on national interest and the limits of power, rather than ideology, especially eschewing alleged crusades for democracy or freedom.
Prominent realists in recent times have included: Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter; and James Baker, Secretary of State and Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor, both under George H. W. Bush.
To show that he does not rule out the significance of morality in making foreign policy, Hagel describes his position as being that of “principled realism,“ which political journalist John Judis contends reflects the mindset of most realists today. Judis writes: “Hagel and the ex-officials understand realism to mean a ‘realistic’—as opposed to ‘reckless’—foreign policy. They don’t reject the idea that the world would be better if dictatorships became democracies, but they are very cautious about how the United States could bring that about.”
In contrast to neocons, who maintain that the United States is such an overwhelmingly dominant superpower that it can, and should, unilaterally bring about regime change in “rogue nations,” realists “believe that the Cold War’s end had created a multipolar and potentially anarchic world that threatens to erupt in new kinds of wars and crises that require coordinated responses. They also think that the world has become what Brzezinski calls ‘post-imperial’— that the great powers can no longer simply impose their will upon lesser developed countries. And that particularly applies to the Middle East where resentment of Western imperialism endures.”
John Judis, “Don't Believe What Today's GOP Says About the Foreign Policy ‘Mainstream,’” New Republic, July 10, 2013
Hagel currently chairs the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank with strong connections to prestigious members of the foreign policy establishment. The council has as its mission the promotion of “constructive U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the central role of the Atlantic community in meeting the international challenges of the 21st century."
In December 2012, it issued a major report, "Envisioning 2030: U.S. Strategy for a Post-Western World," which would seem to have quasi-governmental sanction. The report declares that it “is intended to complement the National Intelligence Council (NIC)’s much-anticipated quadrennial report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” and that in producing the report “the Atlantic Council has worked alongside the NIC, the US intelligence community’s mid- and long-term analysis body.” (p. 1)
[Atlantic Council, Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western, http://www.acus.org/files/publication_pdfs/403/Envisioning2030_web.pdf.pdf ] http://bit.ly/WOpehw
While emphasizing a radically changed world environment in which non-Western countries will be far more significant, both economically and politically, the report simultaneously rejects the idea of an America in decline, holding that the US still can exercise global leadership but in a less overt manner. “Rather than considering itself a hegemon,” the report counsels, “it would be wise for the United States to think more like chairman of the board, convener in chief, catalyzer, and 911 first responder (decreasingly so). . . . Discreet engagement, humility and knowing where your leverage starts and stops will be critical to a prudent, strategy-driven, priority focused policy. (p. 30)
Without direct American intervention, the report sees the Middle East moving ineluctably in a democratic direction as a result of global communications, which will ultimately bring about the end of authoritarian regimes, including the Islamic Republic. "For U.S. strategy,” the study contends, “Iran should be viewed as a potential natural partner in the region” as it had been prior to the Islamic revolution in 1979. “A post-mullah dominated government shedding Shia [Muslim] ideology could easily return to being a net contributor to stability by 2030." (p. 43) While describing nuclear proliferation as a serious danger, the study accepts the possibility that Iran, even before any shift to democracy, might possess nuclear weapons. However, it mentions this only briefly within the context of US nuclear weapons policy, contending that such a development would not necessarily preclude a significant diminution of the US nuclear arsenal, which it supports, maintaining: “To deter and if necessary to defeat micro-nuclear powers such as North Korea, or Iran if it does cross the nuclear threshold, numbers substantially lower than those of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal may be possible.” (p. 48)
What makes Hagel especially valuable is that, because of his connections, he will have support from prominent figures in the field of national security, who can come forth and publicly defend his policies, providing an effective counterweight to the likely hostile misrepresentation and criticism from the neocons and the overall Israel lobby. Hagel’s endorsements demonstrate this elite support, which includes: Colin Powell, Secretary of State under George W. Bush; Frank Carlucci, National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defense under Reagan; Lawrence Korb, Assisstant Secretary of Defense under Reagan; Richard Burt, Assistant Secretary of State under Reagan; Thomas Pickering, Ambassador to Israel under Reagan; Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Obama; Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor under George H.W. Bush; Richard Haas , who held senior posts under both Bushes and is currently President of the Council of Foreign Relations; Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Carter; and William S. Cohen, Secretary of Defense under Clinton.
Hagel is also supported by senior retired military leaders, including: Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director under President George W. Bush; Adm. William Fallon, former commander of U.S. Central Command; Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander, U.S. Central Command; Adm. Robert Natter, former commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet; Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, former superintendent, U.S. Military Academy at West Point; Gen. James Jones, former national security advisor; Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander in Afghanistan; and Adm. William Fallon, former commander of U.S. Central Command.
To understand what Hagel might do, a quick review of the establishment realists’ reaction to the neocon-inspired Middle East agenda is in order. Realists were cool to the war on Iraq and the overall neocon agenda in the Middle East, with Scowcroft and Brzezinski being major critics of America’s going to war in 2003. In March 2006, as public opposition intensified against the Iraq War, Congress created a 10-member commission, called the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by the elder Bush’s close associate and former Secretary of State James Baker and by former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, which was charged with assessing the war situation in Iraq and offering solutions not only for the problems in Iraq but also for the broader Middle East. Released on December 6, 2006, the Iraq Study Group report forthrightly asserted that America could not prevail militarily. Though rejecting a “precipitate withdrawal” of American troops, it advocated a gradual exit of all combat units by 2008, with some American military personnel remaining to advise Iraqi forces.
The most glaring differences between the Iraq Study Group’s report and the neocons were not on Iraq, but rather pertained to the issues of Iran and the Israeli-Palestine conflict. It was on these issues that the report offered its most radical break with neoconservative policy. On Iran, it advocated rapprochement rather than destabilization and regime change, as sought by the neocons. Iran and Syria, diehard enemies of Israel, were to be made integral partners of an international Iraq Support Group, which would work for the stabilization of that country. Regarding Israel and Palestine, the report recognized that stability could not be established in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East without first achieving a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Iraq Study Group’s report was widely recognized as a “realist” document. In the Washington Post, for example, Glen Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks referred to it as the “The Realist Manifesto.” “Throughout its pages,” Kessler and Ricks opined, “the report reflects the foreign policy establishment’s disdain for the ‘neoconservative’ policies long espoused by President Bush and his aides.”
“The Realists' Repudiation Of Policies for a War, Region,” Washington Post, December 7, 2006
No effort was ever made to implement the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations since President Bush, instead, adopted in January 2007 the almost diametrically opposed “surge” approach formulated at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), its principal developers being Frederick Kagan and General Jack Keane, which instead of winding down the war escalated it with increased troop levels.
Realists not only expressed their views on Middle East policy from outside the executive branch of the government, but also in subordinate roles within it, as would be the case for Hagel, if confirmed. Robert Gates, a realist of equal stature to that of Hagel, would replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense shortly after the 2006 Congressional election, in which Republicans suffered a serious defeat largely due to the unpopularity of the Iraq war.
In the elder Bush’s administration, Gates had served as deputy national security advisor under Scowcroft and then subsequently as director of the CIA. Like Scowcroft, Gates had publicly questioned the war on Iraq. Moreover, he also advocated a more conciliatory approach toward Iran, which was reflected in the report, “Iran: Time for a New Approach,” he co-authored with Brzezinski for the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004. The report held that the United States should abandon the idea of overthrowing the Islamic regime in Iran, described as “solidly entrenched,” and, instead, begin to deal with it, which the report held would be more cooperative if US threats should cease. Gates also had been a member of the Iraq Study Group.
“Robert Gates, a Cautious Player From a Past Bush Team,” New York Times, November 9, 2006
What impact did Gates have as Secretary of Defense, a post he would retain under Obama until retiring on July 1, 2011? During the Bush administration, Gates directed the “surge” in 2007, and with violence on the decline he began the troop withdrawal from Iraq, a policy that was continued into Obama’s tenure. And, according to Bob Woodward in his book, Obama’s Wars, Gates, in line with the thinking of the military leadership, advocated the increase in troop levels in Afghanistan that became Obama’s “surge” in 2009. In regard to Iran, however, Gates, again along with the Pentagon military brass, firmly opposed a military strike, which, he informed the Senate Appropriations Committee in April 2009, would only delay Iran's acquisition of a nuclear capability while "send[ing] the program deeper and more covert." Brzezinski described Gates as “a bulwark against those who want to go to war in Iran or give the green light for Israel to go to war.”
Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe, “A new fight over the Iran 'threat',” Asia Times, May 13, 2009, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KE13Df02.html
This review of the past statements and actions of Hagel and realists in general shows that they have been opposed to a war on Iran, though are less resistant to other aspects of the neocon Middle East war agenda. The question is whether this past will be a good indicator of the future.
To the disgust of some critics of the Israel lobby and the Middle East war agenda, Hagel is now disavowing many of the positions taken by him and his confreres in order to placate pro-Israel Democrats and thus guarantee his confirmation by the Senate. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate and a staunch supporter of Israel—and a man whose opposition to Hagel’s confirmation would be essential if the latter’s confirmation were to be stymied—was persuaded to give his endorsement as a result of Hagel’s recantations in their recent 90-minute private meeting. "In our conversation,” Schumer solemnly declared, “ Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force.”
“Schumer Says He’s Satisfied With Hagel on Mideast,” New York Times, January 15, 2013
What does the seeming disavowal of his past positions portend for Hagel’s actions as Secretary of Defense? Obviously his current obeisance to the positions of the Israel lobby reflects the position of the Obama administration. There would seem to be no other reason for him to undergo such a transmutation. Does Obama expect him to be, and is Hagel willing to be, a toady to Israel, and perhaps focus largely on cutting the defense budget, which is a much safer task, instead of offering input on broader national security policy? But why would Obama pick the controversial Hagel, who was certain to set off alarm bells among the Israel Firsters and their Congressional minions, if his purpose were so limited? He could have achieved the latter goal with a much less controversial choice. And note that this is not the first time that Obama tried to nominate someone who raised the hackles of the Israel Lobby. In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, he was willing to nominate Chas Freeman as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, who had served as Ambassador to China and Saudi Arabia, had often denounced many of Israel's actions and America’s tight relationship with the Jewish state. As a result of rigid opposition, in which Chuck Schumer played a primary role, Freeman withdrew his name.
After winning re-election, Obama is in a very strong position politically, perhaps the strongest he will attain during his second term, for, if history is a guide, presidents generally suffer a decline in popularity during their second terms. On domestic matters Obama is clearly exercising his political power, opting for confrontation over compromise with Republicans on domestic issues such as the budget and gun control. Obama is quite willing to lambaste the gun lobby and doesn’t seek compromise there. In short, is Obama willing to be confrontational regarding other aspects of his political agenda while he acts with servility regarding everything related to Israel, including a war with Iran? This would seem to show that he, and his political advisors, regard the Israel lobby as a far more powerful, and dangerous, adversary than other current political forces in the United States, and believe that it needs to be dealt with in a more oblique manner.
Quite likely, Obama’s intent is that, once ensconced as Secretary of Defense, Hagel would return to his previous positions—though doing so stealthily—especially in regard to avoiding war with Iran, and thus serve in an administration effort to stop the march to war. Undoubtedly, Hagel’s recantations so far, which must be repeated in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearings, would be used against him to undercut his credibility if he reverted to his previous positions. Nonetheless, attacks on his character might count for little compared to the actual debate on the merits and harm of initiating war. Moreover, since the military leadership has had qualms about the wisdom of launching an attack, Hagel could do much to advance the cause of peace simply by giving them free rein to present their arguments, while staying in the background himself or pointing out that he would be simply presenting the views of his military experts.
Obama is very cautious, but like more than a few recent presidents of the post-World War II period, it is likely that he has no real love for the Israel lobby, or even Israel, and everything would seem to indicate that he is very much opposed to a war with Iran. And it is reasonable to assume that Hagel has been willing to prostrate himself in order to cautiously advance the goal of peace, since it is highly unlikely that he wants to become Secretary of Defense so badly that he is willing to do anything to get it. Such a debased tactic would not just be completely out of character for Hagel; it would not be worth it to him personally since if he became a toady to the Israel lobby he would lose his credibility with the establishment luminaries who have the power to provide him with important private positions and honors. Rather, Hagel is likely doing it because Obama (with whom, as pointed out earlier, he has had a close relationship) has keyed him in to his plan.
Beyond avoiding imminent war with Iran, Obama very likely might intend to make use of Hagel to substantially reduce America’s overall Israelocentric military involvement in the Middle East, which would entail a move toward real negotiations with the Islamic Republic. And Hagel as Secretary of Defense might be able to do this surreptitiously by his willingness to support major cuts in the defense budget. The argument would then be that the US would need to reduce its military commitments to make them commensurate with America’s reduced military capability stemming from the necessary spending cuts.
None of this is to imply that Obama intends to completely overhaul America’s overall Middle East policy. Most importantly, it is highly unlikely that he plans to substantially change America’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict and actually pressure Israel to allow for a viable, fully-sovereign Palestinian state or even cease America’s backing of Israel at the UN Security Council with its vetoes. Since its support for Israel is a major cause of hostility toward the United States in the Middle East, Obama would not achieve any radical improvement in America’s negative image in the region. Moreover, without ceasing its all-out support for Israel, the United States could still be dragged into Israel’s conflicts. Nonetheless, Obama and Hagel would be capable of stopping the imminent danger to the United States, which is war with Iran, and could pursue policies that would likely lessen, though certainly not eliminate, the likelihood of future American military adventurism in the region.