WASHINGTON – Minutes after US 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 Senator 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 on which 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 White House.
On Hezbollah, the Obama administration has been leading a vocal campaign to have the EU label the Lebanese Shi'ite group a terrorist organization. John Brennan – the White House advisor on counterterrorism 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.
On Hamas, the US has rejected negotiations with the Palestinian terror group until it accepts the Quartet 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.
Despite these differences, generally speaking cabinet secretaries follow the direction of the White House, and that’s particularly so when the occupant is Obama.
“Barack Obama is the most controlling, dominating president [on] foreign policy since Richard Nixon,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East advisor with the State Department, now a Woodrow Wilson Center scholar. “It doesn’t matter what Chuck Hagel thinks on Iran sanctions, Hamas, Hezbollah.”
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 advisor on Middle East issues.
Obama has made it clear that he himself doesn’t like the idea of use of 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 nomination.
While Hagel might argue against military action on Iran, his selection could be a sign that this is the direction Obama himself is inclined towards. On the other hand, it’s still too early to know if that’s the case – particularly that the sanctions and negotiations efforts have yet to finish playing out.
Though it’s premature to conclude that Hagel’s selection is a sign of where Obama is headed, or will be a factor in leading him there, the perception of the choice could have a much more immediate impact.
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 Iran.”
He said that Iranians may well interpret that as a sign that the US has a “diminished, less credible military option,” which could encourage them to race towards the nuclear threshold out of a conviction that the Americans won’t stop them.
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.
Asked about Hagel’s views on Iran sanctions and Israel Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast gave the first signal of how the selection would be read in Tehran. He was quoted as saying, "We hope there will be practical changes in American foreign policy and that Washington becomes respectful of the rights of nations."
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