WASHINGTON – Minutes after President Barack Obama announced his choice of Chuck
Hagel to be the next US defense secretary Monday, White House spokesman Jay
Carney took the podium for his daily press briefing and was confronted with
questions on the Republican former senator’s views on Iran and Israel “I think
that Sen. Hagel’s record on those issues and so many others demonstrate that he
is in sync with the president’s policies,” Carney said in response to questions
noting the criticism some have had of his perspectives.
But while there
are many issues where Hagel and Obama clearly line up – on drawing down the war
in Afghanistan and reducing the Pentagon’s budget, for instance – on several key
Middle East issues, Hagel has staked out positions that do not align with the
On Hezbollah, the Obama administration has been leading a
vocal campaign to have the EU label the Lebanese group a terrorist organization.
John Brennan – the White House adviser on counter-terrorism whom Obama nominated
to head the CIA at the same event as the Hagel announcement – pointedly made a
public call for such a designation this fall.
But in 2006, Hagel was one
of just a dozen US senators who declined to sign a letter calling on the EU to
designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
On Hamas, the US has rejected
negotiations with the Palestinian terrorist organization until it accepts the
Quartet’s principles of recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and
respect for previous agreements.
Hagel, in contrast, urged Obama to hold
direct talks with Hamas in 2009.
And on Iran, Obama has repeatedly
stressed the importance of imposing stringent sanctions and noted that military
force remains an option.
Hagel, in a 2006 op-ed, spoke of the many
dangers posed by a military strike on Iran and argued it would not solve the
problem. He also voted against several (though not all) pieces of legislation
imposing sanctions during his time in the Senate.
More recently, he said
the military option should be left on the table.
differences, generally speaking cabinet secretaries follow the direction of the
White House, and that’s particularly so when the occupant is
“Barack Obama is the most controlling, dominating president [on]
foreign policy since Richard Nixon,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle
East adviser with the State Department who is now a Woodrow Wilson Center
“It doesn’t matter what Chuck Hagel thinks on Iran sanctions,
But even if the president mostly relies on his White
House team and his own counsel in making national security decisions, the
defense secretary does have a role in policy.
“The secretary of defense
is a key member of the cabinet, a key member of the national security team, who
has a very important voice at the table in foreign policy deliberations and in
particular the use of force,” said Robert Danin, a former National Security
Council adviser on Middle East issues.
Obama has made it clear that he
himself doesn’t like the idea of using force and sees Hagel, a decorated Vietnam
War veteran, sharing this view.
“He understands that sending young
Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do
when it’s absolutely necessary,” Obama said in announcing Hagel’s
While Hagel might argue against military action on Iran, his
selection could be a sign that this is the direction Obama himself is inclined
toward. On the other hand, it’s still too early to know if that’s the case –
particularly since the sanctions and negotiations efforts have yet to finish
Though it’s premature to conclude that Hagel’s selection is
a sign of where Obama is headed, or that it will be a factor in leading him
there, the perception of the choice could have a much more immediate
Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy
Council, described Hagel’s stance on Iran as “softer than the mainstream of the
Obama administration,” adding that “the nomination, if you’re going to read into
it, is a tack toward the more moderate in terms of approach towards
He said that Iranians may well interpret that as a sign that the
US has a “less credible military option,” which could encourage them to race
toward the nuclear threshold out of a conviction that the Americans won’t stop
In that scenario, Berman concluded, “The Iranians become emboldened
and the Israelis become worried.”
Alternatively, they could see the US as
more sincere in its approach to negotiations.