The Hagel hearings and the Iran use of force question (updated)

The Hagel hearings and the Iran use of force question (updated)

Is it possible that the debate and vote on Senator Hagel’s confirmation for secretary of defense will be the closest the Senate comes to a debate and vote on the use of force in Iran?  As the administration showed on Libya, President Obama believes he can use military force without a prior congressional vote. The administration would be very wary about asking for something it is not absolutely certain it could get, and it would have to be very uncertain of winning such an "authorization to use military force in Iran" vote. Accordingly, it is likely that, if it ever came to it, the Obama administration might believe it must use military force against Iran’s nuclear program without the kind of lengthy and contentious congressional debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq war and the 1991 Iraq war.

If my speculations are correct thus far — a big if, I realize — then a further, ironic speculation may also be correct: a vote for Hagel may be a vote against the use of force in Iran.

Let’s stipulate up front that hawks and doves alike would prefer a negotiated solution with Iran in which Iran verifiably abandoned its nuclear ambitions. The debate between hawks and doves is not a debate between those who think the use of force would be swell and those who know it would not be. It is rather a debate between hawks who think that the "unswell" military option is preferable to learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and/or accepting a hitherto unacceptable negotiated deal that could not be prevented from devolving into "learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapons") and doves who think that it is preferable to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon than to resort to force.    

Officially, the Obama administration’s policy is, by this metric, hawkish. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel’s position has been dovish and has remained dovish.

Hawks and doves differ on one further question: why haven’t we been able to get a negotiated solution with Iran thus far? Doves say the reason is that the United States has hitherto botched diplomacy by rejecting legitimate Iranian overtures, failing to adequately negotiate face-to-face, having too many sticks and not enough carrots in the mix, and over-relying on unilateral sanctions; more creative diplomacy from the United States should be able to open up an acceptable deal. Hawks say the reason is that hitherto Iran has not experienced enough pain to be willing to concede on key issues and so the key is to ratchet up the coercive element of coercive diplomacy (whilst keeping the diplomatic element alive as well) until Iran makes the requisite concessions.

Officially, the Obama 2008 campaign was dovish by this metric but the Administration has moved towards the hawkish pole over the past several years. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel’s position has been dovish and has remained dovish.

If you were President Obama and you were in fact still hawkish — i.e. you believed you might need to use military force — why would you nominate the dovish Hagel?

One possibility — call it the "Nixon to China" possibility — is that a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in Congress, in the Pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it (which, I am sure, Obama devoutly hopes it never will). Likewise, only a dove like Hagel could convince skeptics that the Obama administration has done everything it can on the negotiations front and that no further U.S. concessions are warranted. That might be Obama’s calculation, but this would be a grave risk to take. Senator Hagel earned his prominence by being an iconoclast, by breaking with his president, by sticking to his anti-interventionist instincts even when it might have seemed disloyal to do so.  Such a maverick would be more likely to break with the hawkish Obama when push came to shove than to blot his military copybook by supporting military action on Iran. I can’t rule it out, but I think the "Nixon to China" interpretation is the wrong one.

A more likely possibility is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says. That is, I think it is possible that when push comes to shove President Obama may believe it would be preferable to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (or a bad deal that was tantamount to that) than to use military force. He may also believe that the administration has migrated as far to the hawkish pole on the question of how to structure negotiations with Iran as is wise, and that it is time to try more dovish approaches to negotiations. An Obama that is a dove-in-hawk’s-feathers would find a Secretary Hagel fully in harmony with his views.

There is a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the foregoing, in part because Sen. Hagel has not been pinned down on his current views on Iran and the crucial question about which is worse, living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or resorting to force. I expect that to be one of the main foci of the confirmation hearings. And I expect the debate those questions and answers engender to be one of the liveliest debates the political establishment has had to date on the Iran issue.

Which means that Hagel’s confirmation hearings and vote may be something of a proxy for congressional action on the use of force on Iran.

Update: Someone much more knowledgeable about the region than I am pointed out another irony about the Hagel nomination. If the hawks are correct both about Sen. Hagel’s views and about what hinders negotiations with Iran, then the appointment of Hagel, on the margins, potentially increases the likelihood of the outcome the doves profess most to despise: an Israeli preventive strike on Iran. Here is how the logic plays out: If the hawks are right, the appointment of Hagel undermines the use of force threat, which both undermines negotiations with Iran and undermines Israeli confidence that it can trust the United States to, in Obama’s words, "have its back."  Failing negotiations, coupled with growing Israeli doubts, intensifies pressure on Israeli leaders to take matters into their own hands, with all of the predictable undesirable consequences that will ensue. Irony of ironies, such Israeli action might be taken to confirm Hagel’s critique of Israel, the same critique that some supporters say justifies his confirmation and others say justifies voting against him. Secretary Hagel, my friend suggests, might be a self-fulfilling prophet.

There are too many hypotheticals piled upon hypotheticals to bet the farm on this chain of logic. For one thing, a Secretary Hagel would doubtless work tirelessly to head off such an Israeli preventive strike and the administration may well succeed in preventing Israeli action even if they do not succeed in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, of course, the hawks might be wrong about Hagel’s views or the likely consequences of those views for coercive diplomacy. But if Hagel is as wise and prudent as his supporters claim, it would probably serve him well to think through "what-ifs" like these and to clarify his views in the hearings accordingly.