Following President Obama’s announcement that he is nominating former Senator Chuck Hagel as his next Secretary of Defense, Hillary cautioned on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas (click here or on video above) that Hagel will be in the wrong job to drive a fundamental recasting of the Obama administration’s Iran policy:
“I would take the president’s word that he likes and trusts former Senator Hagel, got to know him in the Senate, likes and trusts his positions and his candor on a range of issues. But I think the calculus to go ahead, and in the way that they are going ahead is that Senator Hagel, for all of the courageous positions he’s taken—on Iran, on Israel, HAMAS, lots of issues—that he will assure his fellow senators that those are positions that he held as a senator and they really will not have very much to do with his position as Secretary of Defense. Those are quintessential foreign policy issues that will be carried out by the Secretary of State and the national security adviser…
Obama now has an all-white-male [national security] cabinet. The question is how long will his national security adviser stay, Tom Donilon. And there I would put a question whether Susan Rice will be back on the scene. And she will certainly constrain Hagel’s attempts—if he has any desire to make these attempts—to change policies…[The White House]thinks that Hagel is going to a good Secretary of Defense, and do quintessentially Secretary of Defense things—not foreign policy.”
To be sure, Obama’s nomination of Hagel is not without significance. As Hillary points out,
“Accountability is critically important. When President Obama first campaigned in 2008, he vowed not just to take our troops out of Iraq, but to change the mentality in our political system that got us into such a strategic disaster. The appointment of someone like Hagel as Secretary of Defense at least goes back to that campaign promise, that he would try to change the mentality that brought us to those kinds of strategic disasters in the Middle East.”
Nevertheless, it is important not to overstate what Hagel’s confirmation would imply about the course of Obama’s policy toward Iran and other high-profile Middle East issues. In Hillary’s view,
“The hopes for Senator Hagel and the concerns about Senator Hagel, I think, are both overblown. Hagel, if he’s Defense Secretary, and the entire national security team, will have a series of crises come on their watch. These nuclear talks (if they go forth) with Iran are not going to solve the problem we have with the Islamic Republic of Iran. If he’s Secretary of Defense, former Senator Hagel is not going to be able to solve them by saying, ‘Well, just give them a little bit more, a little more relief.’ That’s not going to solve the problem.
I don’t know if he’s actually got a vision for dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the dramatic changes we see in the Middle East, and what is happening to American power. But even if he had that vision, you need a president and a national security adviser who could work with him, and a secretary of state. We haven’t seen that in the first term of the Obama administration, and I’m not sure we can hang all this on whether Hagel is going to be Secretary of Defense or not.”
Hillary warns that U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic “is on a trajectory toward war that [Obama] is not taking us off of.” In this context, “Many are hoping that at least Hagel will stop another march to a needless war in the Middle East on Iran.” But Hillary recalls the experience of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates,
“who was considered to have bipartisan support, wide respect not only in the Pentagon in the CIA, among Republicans and Democrats: he had to resign, with the intervention in Libya. His opposition to our intervention in Libya did not stop our intervention in Libya.
So even if Hagel takes that (what I would think) courageous and correct position, to try to urge caution against going to war to disarm a country of weapons of mass destruction it doesn’t have yet again—we have an experience with Gates…Gates resigned after the Libya intervention; he told Charlie Rose [that] he opposed it and resigned…Being opposed to another war doesn’t necessarily stop it.”
In addition to the Hagel nomination, Obama also named White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan to become the CIA’s next director. Brennan, Hillary notes, “has been a masterful tactician, particularly as a champion of the drone wars, which have killed American citizens without any due process of law, including the son a someone, a sixteen-year-old. He’s been the champion of this kind of drone warfare and covert operations throughout the world—which, in some ways, could take some of the pressure off of Hagel. Because a lot of the trajectory toward war with Iran is covert, is in cyber warfare, and other covert ways.”
In this regard, Brennan’s nomination highlights what Hillary describes as “the core dysfunction in American politics today:
The Democrats have gone AWOL. The left has gone AWOL. There’s no Democrat, I don’t think, of any seriousness who’s really going to challenge and open up the record of drone warfare and the covert war that has become the way of American war since the strategic disasters in invading Iraq and Afghanistan. No Democrat has done that; they’ve gone AWOL. But it’s something the rest of the world sees, and really hold the United States in some contempt for.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett