Shadow Government

What does Hagel’s nomination mean? The fight over Iraq continues

President Obama is set to nominate Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and his team seems to relish the confirmation battle that will ensue. Obama is calculating that he will be able to rally enough wobbly Democrats and skeptical Republicans to overcome the strong opposition to Hagel. In the end, I think he ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Obama is set to nominate Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and his team seems to relish the confirmation battle that will ensue. Obama is calculating that he will be able to rally enough wobbly Democrats and skeptical Republicans to overcome the strong opposition to Hagel. In the end, I think he is probably right: there is usually a strong presumption in favor of a president’s nominee and Democrats will be loathe to hand the president another personnel defeat so soon after he was forced to back off nominating Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Lower ranking candidates are often stuck in limbo for long periods of time with senatorial holds, but it would be more unusual for one of the top cabinet positions to be blocked that way. Doubtless, Obama is calculating there will be lots of fireworks at the confirmation hearing, but eventually Hagel will get confirmed, albeit without the resounding and enthusiastic support that ushered in Obama’s first two SecDef picks (Leon Panetta was confirmed unanimously and Robert Gates, received a 95-2 vote when nominated by President Bush. Quick trivia quiz: Who voted against Gates? Two Republicans, Sen. Jim Bunning and Sen. Rick Santorum, though Senators Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and Elizabeth Dole did not vote).  

My bet is Obama will win this fight, which raises the question, what will he have won? Based on the commentary surrounding the Hagel nomination issue, perhaps the answer is that Obama could win another round in the fight to stigmatize support for the Iraq war. I reached this conclusion after reading two thoughtful pieces, one pro-Hagel and one anti-Hagel. Bill Kristol registers a strong critique of Senator Hagel and raises an important question: beyond the evident appeal of rebuking Obama’s critics, what is the case for Hagel? And Peter Beinart indirectly offers an intriguing answer: rebuking Obama’s critics is sufficient case for Hagel.

The battle over Hagel is a battle over the meaning of Iraq. The pro-Hagel faction has a distinctive interpretation of what happened in Iraq. They believe that invading Iraq was a strategic blunder so egregiously stupid that it could only be foisted on the American public through a coercive and deliberately deceptive propaganda campaign. The wisest people were those who always opposed Iraq (read: Obama), but those who voted for the use of force in Iraq can be forgiven for succumbing to this folly only if they quickly became vocal critics of the war (read: Hagel, Clinton, and Biden). Once the original folly of invading Iraq had been committed, there was only one plausible outcome: rapid strategic defeat for the United States and equally rapid withdrawal. The critics appeared to want this outcome to be cemented during the Bush presidency, perhaps so as to indelibly mark who was to blame for the fiasco, hence they vigorously opposed Bush’s surge at the time and argued instead that U.S. troops should withdraw under fire regardless of the consequences in Iraq. The success of the surge in reversing Iraq’s strategic trajectory was an awkward complication, but this faction ultimately overcame it by arguing, against all the evidence, that the surge was irrelevant to any possible positive development in Iraq. Importantly, this interpretation absolves the Obama administration of all responsibility for anything bad that happens in Iraq, thus any sins of omission or commission that occurred in Obama’s first term are waived away as utterly inconsequential.

Hagel personifies this interpretation of Iraq — indeed, he went so far as to claim that the surge was "the most dangerous blunder in this country since Vietnam." Note that: not the invasion of Iraq, but the surge in Iraq, the effort to reverse the strategic trajectory.

The anti-Hagel faction, of course, has a different interpretation of what happened in Iraq. Views on the ultimate wisdom of the initial invasion of Iraq vary widely among this group, but they share two common features: that the decision was (1) well-debated (no coercion or deception) and (2) reasonable, meaning that given the limits of what was known and the associated uncertainties, a reasonable policymaker could conclude that resorting to military force was an acceptable option to replace the collapsing (and believed to be failing) sanctions/inspections regime. With hindsight, one could argue that the decision was a mistake, maybe even a blunder, but not in a way that discredited all of the strategic judgments that led up to it. And, importantly, not in a way that dismissed the importance of all of the strategic judgments that came after it. An important part of this interpretation of Iraq is the claim that, once launched, the best strategic course for the United States was to seek success — to fight until it could leave behind an Iraq that could govern itself democratically, defend itself, and be a U.S. ally in the fight against violent extremists in the region. By 2006 Iraq was not on a trajectory to success, but the surge changed that. Thus, while the surge may not have compensated in some moral or political sense for all mistakes that went before, it was certainly the right and consequential choice given where the country was in 2007. Finally, this faction argues that the last four years have been consequential as well, and that Obama’s choices have resulted in an Iraq that is far less conducive to American national security interests than what other choices would have produced.

The debate over the historical meaning of Iraq matters because it has such obvious implications for the analogous challenge with Iran. Many of the pro-Hagel supporters openly acknowledge that they hope Hagel’s pick signals that the President is willing to abandon the military option in dealing with Iran, for much the same reasons that they argue the option was disastrous in Iraq. President Obama has not publicly connected those dots, but I expect he will be challenged to explain whether that interpretation makes sense in the days to come.

By the way, the conventional wisdom is that Obama’s other national security pick — John Brennan for CIA director — will sail through confirmation. I do think he will be readily confirmed, but I would not be surprised if some Senators used the hearings to register growing concern about President Obama’s counter-terrorism policies, especially drone strikes. The Obama administration’s drone strike program is broadly popular in the United States, but not among the left and libertarian-right flanks. Brennan is the face of that program — to the extent that anyone is the face of a program operating so much in the shadows — and so this will be the single best opportunity critics will have to register their concerns. (The program is under much greater pressure abroad, and I expect the President to have to spend considerable political capital abroad if he wants to maintain it at the level he set in the first term.)

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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