Hagel: A Harbinger Of Things To Come?
By Avi Yishai
Less than a month into his second term, President Obama’s choices to implement his foreign policy and national security strategy seem to be sending dangerously mixed signals. There are troubling implications that the US might be willing to tolerate Iran as a nuclear power. At the same time, the White House signaled quite clearly that it intends to step up its pressure on the new Israeli government under Binyomin Netanyahu to restart negotiations with the Palestinians, presumably on the Arabs’ terms.
The message concerning forcing Israel into a new round of negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas was sent by both the outgoing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and her replacement, John Kerry. He began serving in the post this week, after his nomination was confirmed by all but three US senators. Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, and James Inhofe of Oklahoma were the only ones voting no. Cruz said he opposed Kerry’s confirmation because of his liberal stance on national-security issues and his record of “supporting treaties and international tribunals that have undermined US sovereignty.”
The White House has been talking about reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process ever since Obama won re-election. It stepped up its pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu as soon as the outcome of the January 22 Knesset election became apparent.
Just days before leaving her post, Clinton explicitly stated administration intentions to restart the long-stalled peace talks. Speaking at a global forum in Washington, Clinton said that she expected Kerry to make a new effort to close the gap between Israel and the Palestinians.
DELIBERATELY MISREADING THE ISRAELI ELECTION
Suggesting that Netanyahu will probably try to form a more centrist governing coalition than he has had until now, Clinton said that Israeli voters had signaled they want their government to follow “a different path” concerning peace talks with the Palestinians, in contrast to the policies which Netanyahu has followed until now.
Israeli public opinion polls and voter surveys have not revealed any such trend. In fact, Yair Lapid, whose new Yesh Atid party was the surprise of the election, finishing second, quickly refused to join with the parties on the Israeli left in trying to deny Netanyahu another term as prime minister. Lapid made it clear that domestic issues would be his top priority, even though in principle, he is in favor of renewed negotiations with the Palestinians to reach a two-state solution, as is Netanyahu.
In fact, a more realistic reading of the outcome would note that the candidate who campaigned on attempting to revive the peace negotiations, Tzipi Livni, finished poorly, winning only 6 Knesset seats. Furthermore, Shelly Yachimovich, the head of Labor, the largest of the left wing parties, deliberately avoided mention of the peace process in her campaign platform, and focused almost entirely on domestic and pocketbook issues. Israeli voters rewarded her for that choice by giving Labor 15 Knesset seats, more than twice the number Livni received.
Nevertheless, Clinton and other Obama administration officials read the Israeli election results as a statement of voter discontent with Netanyahu’s tough stance towards the Palestinian demands for further territorial concessions which have been endorsed by Obama.
“I actually think that this election opens doors, not nails them shut,” Clinton said. “I know that President Obama [and] my successor, soon to be Secretary of State John Kerry, will pursue this.”
Kerry confirmed this during his Senate confirmation hearing last week, even though he mentioned Israel and the peace process only in passing. It is well known that Kerry generally supports Obama’s clear intention to announce his own peace proposals if Netanyahu continues to resist calls for an end to new construction in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, and for Israel to accept the pre-67 borders as the starting point for territorial negotiations with the Palestinians.
Kerry told his longtime colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which he led as chairman, that as Obama’s secretary of state, he would try to make headway in reviving the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which Abbas has been boycotting since 2008. He provided no specifics as to how he would do it.
“I have a lot of thoughts about that challenge,” Kerry said. “We need to try to find a way forward, and I happen to believe that there is a way forward.”
Kerry’s four hour Senate confirmation hearing last week was little more than a formality. In response to largely friendly questioning, Kerry reviewed a broad range of American foreign policy issues, but had little new to offer. The Senate confirmed his nomination later that day.
WHY KERRY WAS CONFIRMED SO EASILY
The major political battle over the secretary of state appointment had already been fought and won by Republicans before Kerry was even nominated, when Obama’s first choice for the post, US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, was forced to withdraw from consideration. She became unacceptable due to her actions in September when she willingly served as the administration spokesman selling the American people a bogus story to explain the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, in order to protect Obama’s foreign policy record at a critical time in his re-election campaign. She was also criticized for her ultra-liberal record at the State Department as well her overly outspoken and abrasive personal style, which has hampered effectiveness as a diplomat. Rice is also said to be antagonistic to American supporters of Israel.
In the end, Obama settled for Kerry, who was widely promoted by Rice’s critics as a much better alternative as secretary of state. Kerry made it clear that he would implement Obama’s desire for a reduced US role in responding to international crises, ranging from the civil war and resulting humanitarian crisis in Syria to the takeover of the Arab Spring by Islamic fundamentalists and allies of al Qaeda throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
OBAMA’S CABINET CHOICES HAVE LITTLE REAL POWER
Regardless of who occupies his senior cabinet posts, Obama is determined to continue making and implementing all of the key decisions in foreign and national security policy, as he did during his first term, making the choice of his cabinet members less significant than in other recent administrations, when they had a much greater influence over policymaking.
In this respect, Clinton’s performance as secretary of state was instructive. Her boosters in the media had nothing but praise for her peripatetic travels to countries around the world. In fact, she was largely bypassed by Obama and overshadowed by his White House advisors when it came to making the most important foreign policy decisions. Clinton was relegated to a supporting role, and kept busy maintaining routine US relations with other countries around the world.
CLINTON’S LAST DAYS AS SECRETARY OF STATE
During her last days as secretary of state, Clinton was still busy defending herself against criticism of her handling of the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. In an interview with the Associated Press, she called the attack the low point in her tenure as secretary of state, and pointed to an inquiry into it by an independent Accountability Review Board she had commissioned. Its report was highly critical of senior management at the State Department for the security failures at Benghazi, but did not single her out for blame for the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans. In response to the report’s findings, four State Department bureaucrats were forced to resign or assigned to new duties.
On January 23, Clinton testified before the House and Senate foreign affairs committees on Benghazi, and was thoroughly grilled by Republicans. Later, Senator Lindsay Graham said that he thought that she had gotten “away with murder” by escaping direct blame for the incident.
Clinton responded by insisting that she had instituted the necessary “improvements” in the State Department’s bureaucracy following the attack. She also complained about “the way that some people refused to accept the facts,” and had “politicized everything about this terrible attack.”
BIDEN TAKING A MORE IMPORTANT FOREIGN POLICY ROLE
It is significant that neither Kerry nor Clinton was entrusted by the White House to make its most important foreign policy decision of the president’s second term to date. Instead, Obama designated his Vice President, Joe Biden, who now appears to be Clinton’s most serious potential rival for the 2016 Democrat presidential nomination, to announce last week that the US was inviting Iran’s leaders to engage in a direct dialogue over the future of their nuclear weapons program.
It is also unusual for such an important initiative to come from a vice president, whose foreign policy duties are traditionally more ceremonial than substantive in nature.
WHY HAGEL IS UNQUALIFIED TO RUN THE PENTAGON
In that regard, the clumsy statements on Iran by former Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama’s choice to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense during his Senate confirmation hearing last week were doubly embarrassing. They cast additional doubt on the administration’s position on the crucial question of whether to halt, or just try to contain, Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
His inept performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week confirmed the fears of Hagel’s conservative and pro-Israel opponents that he is not qualified to run the Pentagon and the US military establishment. His service as an enlisted soldier during the Vietnam war more than 40 years ago hardly qualifies Hagel as an expert on today’s military. His record as a renegade former Republican senator who has turned his back on his former GOP colleagues and the principles of the party, does not inspire confidence in his reliability or good judgement. He also seems to enjoy his reputation as a political maverick.
His opponents were eager to see Hagel pressed to explain during his confirmation hearing the many provocative statements he has made over the years disparaging American supporters of Israel and those who support a tough US stand against the nuclear threat from Iran. His opponents point to Hagel’s long public record, which suggests that he is an opponent of Israel, a pacifist, has little respect for the US military, and opposes the US role as the leader and guardian of the free world. They also suspect that Obama has chosen Hagel to lead the Pentagon because he privately shares Hagel’s positions.
BOTCHED CONFIRMATION HEARING ANSWERS
Hagel’s most important blunder of several he made during the hearing came in his answer to that key question. He was asked whether the US should try to contain a nuclear-armed Iran, in much the way that the Soviet Union’s nuclear threat was during the cold war, rather that continue efforts, through sanctions and possibly the use of military force, to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
In a speech to an Aipac conference last year, Obama stated clearly that a policy of trying to contain an Iranian nuclear threat was impractical, because of the certainty that it would touch off a region-wide nuclear arms race in which Saudi Arabia and other nearby states would seek nuclear weapons as well, destabilizing the entire region and threatening world peace.
But despite the fact that Hagel had been carefully prepped on this question by the White House during weeks of preparation for his confirmation hearings, he went off-message and badly misstated Obama’s official public position on this critical and very delicate strategic issue.
HAGEL GOES OFF MESSAGE
Hagel should have stuck to the script which had been carefully prepared for him by the White House, which carefully reflected the current administration position on Iran, emphasizing the need for Iran to engage in serious negotiations over its nuclear program, while retaining at least the hint of a US military threat should all other efforts fail to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
In the advance text of Hagel’s testimony, which was released to reporters before the hearings, he was supposed to have said, “As I said in the past many times, all options must be on the table. My policy has always been the same as the president’s, one of prevention, not of containment. And the president has made clear that is the policy of our government.”
Instead, Hagel decided to ad-lib his answer to that crucial question, and in the process, got the answer wrong, not once, but twice.
“I support the president’s strong position on containment,” he said.
After an aide reacted to this crucial mistake by slipping a note to Hagel urging him to correct the record, he compounded the mistake by saying, “By the way, I’ve just been handed a note that I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, it meant to say that obviously — on his position on containment — we don’t have a position on containment.”
Thus, rather than simply restating reflect Obama’s clear public position against a nuclear containment policy on Iran, Hagel said that Obama actually has no policy at all on the question.
In a desperate effort to salvage the situation, the Democrat chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, tried to put different words into Hagel’s mouth, saying, “Just to make sure your correction is clear, we do have a position on containment: which is we do not favor containment.”
But it was too late. Hagel had already cast more confusion over administration policy toward Iran, at the same time that Vice President Biden was launching a new effort to get Iran into bilateral negotiations with the Obama administration over the nuclear issue.
UNDERMINING THE CREDIBILITY OF THE US MILITARY THREAT
Should he be confirmed as secretary of defense, Hagel’s history of pro-Iran statements would further undermine the implicit US threat to halt Iran’s nuclear program with military force, should all else fail.
In his public statements concerning Iran policy, Obama has emphasized that as the president of the United States, he does not bluff when he threatens to use military force. But the credibility of that threat against Iran had already been compromised by statements by other high administration publicly questioning whether an attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is even feasible. For example, in December 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that a military attack on Iran would only strengthen Iran’s influence in the region and the international community. This clearly implied that Panetta would oppose any use of the US military force against Iran.
MENDING FENCES WITH SUPPORTERS OF ISRAEL
After Susan Rice was dropped from his list of potential replacements for Clinton as secretary of state, Hagel was Obama’s most controversial second term cabinet appointment. In response to the widespread resistance to his nomination, the White House invested a tremendous amount of political capital to pave the way for his confirmation, That included an effort to neutralize the many concerns expressed by supporters of Israel, including both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, over Hagel’s long public record of hostile statements directed at those who advocate US support for Israel.
The White House has vigorously defended Hagel against charges by pro-Israel and conservative groups that he is soft on Iran and hard on supporters of Israel. The administration seemed to have achieved its goal after New York Senator Charles Schumer threw his full weight behind Hagel’s confirmation, despite his positions on Israel and Iran.
Hagel has also apologized for his past statements questioning the loyalty of Israel’s American supporters. At the hearing, he insisted that he fully supports the administration policy of guaranteeing Israel’s continued security. But his confused statements about policy toward Iran, which Israel sees as its single largest strategic threat, raised the question all over again.
A CONFRONTATION WITH McCAIN
Iran was not the only issue on which Hagel embarrassed himself in the confirmation hearing.
In a sharp exchange with Senator John McCain, Hagel avoided giving a direct answer to repeated questions about his view of President George W. Bush’s strategy of sending a surge of American troops to Iraq in 2007. At the time, Hagel condemned the surge as the “most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
It is obvious that Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, which was the brainchild of General David Petraeus, turned the tide in the war against the insurgents. It ultimately enabled President Obama to withdraw all US troops from Iraq without undermining Iraq’s elected government.
McCain refused to let Hagel off the hook, and when he could not get a clear answer, McCain gave Hagel his own conclusion: “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it.” The tension between McCain and Hagel, whom McCain had described as recently as the previous week as an “old friend,” was palpable.
HAGEL UNABLE TO DEFEND HIS POSITIONS
Hagel was also grilled by the ranking Republican on the Armed Forces committee, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He accused Hagel of “appeasing” America’s enemies by failing to oppose “policies that diminish US power and influence throughout the world.” Inhofe also questioned why the Iranian Foreign Ministry had publicly endorsed Hagel’s nomination to become defense secretary.
Even Armed Services committee chairman Levin, a Democrat who supports Hagel’s confirmation, noted that Hagel had made “troubling” statements about Israel, and had indicated a willingness to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.
Not only did Hagel fail to provide a satisfactory explanation of his previous positions on Iran, he compounded the problem by referring to Iran during his Senate testimony as an “elected, legitimate government.” He then tried to explain that he only meant to say that Iran is a member of the UN and has diplomatic relations with many US allies.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recalled Hagel’s infamous 2006 remark that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates Congress, and then challenged him to “name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby.” Hagel could not.
Hagel was also challenged for a statement he made in 2009 during an Al Jazeera interview agreeing with a description of the US as the “world’s bully.”
WHY OBAMA CHOSE HAGEL
It is widely believed that Obama chose Hagel to serve as his secretary of defense because of his record as an outspoken maverick who opposes US military intervention in all but the most extreme cases. Obama is said to believe that Hagel will be willing to “stand up to the generals” when they object to Obama’s efforts to pay for the expansion of his domestic agenda by making even sharper cuts in the Pentagon budget. He will also support Obama’s desire to sharply accelerate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Hagel did say that he shares outgoing defense secretary Panetta’s “serious concern” about substantial defense budget cuts required under the sequestration law, but he refused to take the same alarmist attitude about them which Panetta has adopted in the past.
The White House has made much of Hagel’s combat record as a wounded and decorated Vietnam veteran, as if deciding whether a 66 year-old-man should be promoted to a most sensitive position has anything to do with his record as a young soldier. It certainly doesn’t give him permission to take an almost pacifist view of the role of the US military in the world today.
Last year, Hagel felt compelled to say, “I’m not a pacifist — I believe in using force, but only after following a very careful decision-making process.” But recalling his feelings after he was wounded in combat in Vietnam in 1968, he said, “I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”
Hagel’s stumbling testimony before Congress last week should have been painful and embarrassing for his supporters, as it further validated critics who call him a sub-par thinker. He tried to disavow his previous positions on Israel, Iran and Pentagon overspending, badly flubbed his efforts to restate Obama policy, and even suggested that as secretary of defense, he would not be making any serious policy decisions. Hagel revealed himself to be, at best, a mediocrity, unfit to be trusted with overseeing national security.