Chuck Hagel Moves Toward Mainstream on Iran

Once Contrarian, Pentagon Pick Shifts to Establishment Stance

Falling in Line: Chuck Hagel used to be known as a lawmaker who marched to his own beat, especially on the Middle East and Iran. Now that he’s aiming to be President Obama’s Pentagon chief, he’s hewing closer to the mainstream.
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Falling in Line: Chuck Hagel used to be known as a lawmaker who marched to his own beat, especially on the Middle East and Iran. Now that he’s aiming to be President Obama’s Pentagon chief, he’s hewing closer to the mainstream.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 16, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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From his temporary office on the Pentagon’s third floor, Chuck Hagel is already working at full speed. He’s devoting his time not just to learning a new job, but also to clarifying his positions on Iran — the issue his former Senate colleagues have vowed to question him on most intensively when his nomination for secretary of defense comes up for confirmation.

The new image Hagel is fashioning for himself is less contrarian than the persona he adopted during his years in the Senate. On January 15, in a meeting with New York Senator Charles Schumer, the former Republican senator from Nebraska presented a new profile. Hagel, who earlier criticized U.S. sanctions against Iran as counterproductive, and military action against it as potentially ruinous, “rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country,” Schumer said in a statement after the meeting. “But he didn’t stop there,” Schumer added. “In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force.”

This does not make Hagel an Iran hawk. Washington analysts still see him as a member of the war-averse faction in Obama’s future Cabinet, at a time when the president has gradually inched toward more openness to the use of military force against Iran if talks and sanctions fail to stop its nuclear program. But it does bring him closer in line with today’s Washington consensus — a consensus that is itself more war-averse compared with the days shortly before President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, when an administration official told Newsweek: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

Obama’s view, said Dov Zakheim, who served as under secretary of defense in the Bush administration, now prevails among military and civilian policymakers.

“There is a consensus in Washington that every effort should be made to avoid a military strike,” said Zakheim, who added that the powerful impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy, as well as the unity of the international community in hewing to those sanctions, were important factors in this thinking. But if this approach ultimately fails, secretaries of defense “tend not to be ideological,” Zakheim said. “They look at the intelligence and the advice in front of them. My guess is that Hagel will do the same.”


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