- By Peter Feaver
President Obama appears poised to nominate two senators for his top two national security cabinet posts.
Sen. John Kerry at State is a safe choice, a respite after the controversy swirling around the president’s initial pick. He is one of the more experienced Democrats vying for the job and he has already worked well with the Obama administration on earlier diplomatic crises. Kerry will sail through the nomination process and may even generate enthusiasm from the Senate — at least when compared with the controversy surrounding Obama’s initial front-runner, Susan Rice.
Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense is a more difficult pick to judge. He is likely to be easy to confirm — easier than Rice, anyway — and some in the media will applaud. But whether he is the best choice for the times, and whether he can deliver on his putative selling point — working with Congress — is open to question.
Hagel is one of a handful of Republicans whose prominence in public life owes primarily to their willingness to criticize other Republicans. Given the adulation such figures enjoy from the mainstream media and academics, it is perhaps surprising that more politicians don’t follow suit. Of course, every Republican will criticize some aspect or other of current Republican policies or practice, but there is a special category of politician for whom that is the primary stock in trade. You can spot such a politician; he is the one, when asked what he likes about Republicans, who responds with a reference to Eisenhower and quickly follows up with a tirade about current and recent leaders of the party.
Hagel is one of these sorts, especially on national security policy. He is a reliable quote criticizing the Bush administration or Sen. John McCain, or Republican hawks, or what-have-you on a wide range of issues. The problem with this is not that he is wrong or unique. On the contrary, he is rather conventional. He voted for the Iraq war in 2002, but then had doubts about the war. These doubts led him to strongly oppose the surge in 2007, along with most of the national security establishment. By itself, opposing the surge does not disqualify someone for higher national security office, but calling the surge "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam" does rather cast doubt on any claims to deep national security insight.
Perhaps more problematically, he has regularly voted against sanctions on Iran, apparently failing to understand how sanctions are a necessary component of any diplomatic negotiation. His opposition to coercive diplomacy with Iran may even put him to the dovish side of the Obama administration. And, as Bill Kristol points out, Hagel is hardly going to reassure Israel supporters that the Obama administration "has Israel’s back," as the president likes to say.
Here’s the thing: these views are utterly conventional in certain Democratic circles (academic circles, too). Some of Hagel’s neo-isolationism even has distant echoes in the Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party. These views are not "beyond the pale" of reasonable defense discourse and they are fine on the academic talk circuit.
Where Hagel’s views don’t have much purchase is with Republicans in Congress. Yes, they might vote to confirm him on the grounds of senatorial courtesy, but they are not going to consider him a compelling voice on national security policy.
According to the Washington Post, the appeal of Hagel appears to be his putative ability to make Pentagon budget cuts palatable to a skeptical Congress. Obama’s last cross-party secretary of defense, Robert Gates, did have a lot of influence among Republicans. Hagel is no Bob Gates. The only people whom Hagel will persuade are the already converted. (As a thought experiment, Democrats should ask themselves how many Democrats would have been reassured if a President Romney put Joe Lieberman at Defense?)
What does the case for Hagel reduce to? He is a Vietnam vet who has long supported Obama and opposed Republicans on national security. There are quite a few Democrats who fit that bill — Jack Reed comes to mind. Hagel will likely be as effective a secretary of defense as Reed would be. That may be good enough for Obama. And since elections have consequences, I doubt that Hagel would be denied confirmation if appointed.
But let’s not pretend that this is some grand bipartisan gesture that will help Obama’s Defense Department work more productively with Congress.