Some comments on Hagel’s appointment

The challenge will be to go beyond the debate over Hagel’s personal views and votes in the past and work out the existing differences between Washington and Jerusalem together through candid dialogue, not unilateral behavior.

Chuck Hagel speaks in Islamabad 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mian Kursheed)
Chuck Hagel speaks in Islamabad 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mian Kursheed)
Former senator and Vietnam war veteran Chuck Hagel began his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday.
Israeli officials, defense analysts and pro-Israel groups in the United States are anxiously awaiting to hear whether Hagel, who has been nominated for the post of US secretary of defense, changed or maintained his positions on a number of key issues such Iran’s nuclear program, American policies in the Middle East amid the Arab Spring, and the “special relationship” between Washington and Jerusalem, especially its military dimension.
On the first day of the hearing, Hagel was grilled for his past views on these matters by a number of senators including John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina). The issue was not Hagel’s past “professional judgment” per se, as Senator McCain opined, but rather his future judgment.
Despite the fact that the hearings are not over, and that traditionally there is much discrepancy between what is said in such hearings and what is actually practiced afterwards, several comments should be made at this point: 1) Some in Israel and in the United States fear Hagel will hijack President Barack Obama’s foreign and defense agenda through an overwhelming personal influence over the president, and install what William Kristol of the Weekly Standard called the “Hagelian thesis” of “anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides.”
But while the position of secretary of defense is important, the American constitution clearly states that “[T]he President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Thus, it is President Obama with other advisers and officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon who will be laying down the general parameters and responsibilities of the next secretary of defense.
Hagel and Obama share many views on foreign and defense matters, but so do Obama, Kerry and Brennan. Hagel co-chairs President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the two men have held intimate discussions over the future policies of this administration. But Hagel is not about to initiate an autonomous defense policy, and by accepting Obama’s offer, Hagel essentially endorsed the general thrust of the White House’s future foreign and defense policies, as he publicly announced during his confirmation hearing.
2) More than anything else, Hagel’s appointment is designed to address the domestic concerns of the Obama administration during its second term in office. Primarily resulting from faltering economic conditions, Obama sought an heir to incumbent Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who would be able and willing to cut down military expenditures in the coming years after they skyrocketed as a result of the Bush administration’s military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration is still struggling to resolve the budgetary impasse with Congress that threatens to push the United States over the “fiscal cliff.”
Indeed, during his Senate hearing Hagel openly argued that while he is deeply committed to preserving American military preparedness and global posture, he is just as “committed to effectively and efficiently using every single taxpayer dollar the right way.”
3) Senator Hagel is not a pacifist. In his view, he is a rather traditional Republican, espousing caution and prudence when it comes to American foreign and defense policy, and socioeconomic stability and fiscal restraint at home. He is no isolationist and there is very little chance he will advocate an approach that involves American disengagement from the international system in general and the Middle East in particular.
Nevertheless, he does not support limitless American military interventionism in global affairs, but rather selective engagement. In a telling article Hagel published in 2004 in the influential journal Foreign Affairs he clearly makes this point when he writes that “the success of our policies will depend not only on the extent of our power, but also on an appreciation of its limits.”
In synch with President Obama’s approach to international affairs, that calls for more pragmatism and realism, Hagel sees American defense policies as such, i.e., primarily about the defense of American national interests and allies, rather than as a vehicle for adventurous or vague notions of exceptionalism or moralism.
4) Lastly, on the issue of Israel and the Iranian nuclear program, Hagel explicitly noted during Thursday’s hearing that he “will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region.”
And as to Iran’s nuclear program, he declared his full commitment to President Obama’s policy of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear program, rather than containment. He explained that his previous remarks and actions, especially his opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, were a result of the conditions that existed at the time and that he currently shares Obama’s and Israel’s wish to completely halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Both assertions are identical to the policies and requests of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and thus should be evaluated in this light.
In conclusion, fears about Hagel’s performance as future secretary of defense are exaggerated, simplistic and ignore the overall ideational and institutional framework of the Obama administration’s foreign and defense policy. Washington is fully committed to Israel’s national security, even if there are disagreements over certain issues. It is only natural that both countries do not see eye-to-eye on everything.
The challenge, however, will be to go beyond the debate over Hagel’s personal views and votes in the past and work out the existing differences between Washington and Jerusalem together through candid dialogue, not unilateral behavior.
If either President Obama or Prime Minister Netanyahu decides to “go rogue” by failing to cooperate and coordinate their policies, further eroding the “special relations” pattern that emerged over the years, Hagel’s appointment will be the last thing Israel needs to worry about.
The writer is the Schusterman Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.