Washington — 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.”
In effect, Hagel’s acceptance of the “all options on the table” approach and the Washington establishment’s evolution toward seeing military intervention in Iran as unwelcome except as an absolute last resort enable both sides to move toward each other. The dual movements make Hagel’s transition into the role of Obama’s right hand on military issues much easier.
Close observers insist that this shift in Hagel’s thinking is not just a matter of political convenience spurred by his nomination. Hagel’s evolution, said Colin Kahl, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, “tracks very closely the changes on the ground.” There is a traceable arc, he said, in Hagel’s positioning.
Doubts regarding Hagel’s willingness to lead the Pentagon into a military campaign in Iran stem to a great extent from an April 2006 interview he gave to a reporter from Pakistan Press International. In it, he was quoted as saying that a military option against Iran “is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”
Hagel also voted against several pieces of legislation extending sanctions by the United States against Iran, and opposed a resolution calling for the inclusion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps on America’s list of terror organizations.
But Hagel’s stands then were influenced by his strong opposition to America’s war in Iraq and by his reservations about the way the Bush administration had conducted the American war in Afghanistan. In an interview with CNN earlier in 2006, Hagel explained: “I think, before we charge off in going off to another war — we’re in two of them now, in Afghanistan and Iraq — we’d better think through this one carefully and clearly. I think it’s going to require an engagement directly with the Iranians.”
Hagel has since explained that his Senate votes reflected only his opposition then to unilateral American sanctions against Iran, which he viewed as ineffective; they did not reflect the current regime of internationally supported sanctions. His reluctance to support some congressional moves, including the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terror group, Hagel said, stemmed from his concern that the Bush administration would use such legislation to justify taking military action precipitously, as Hagel viewed Bush’s action in Iraq.
In fact, even by this past September — two months before Obama’s re-election — Hagel had adopted much of Obama’s language on Iran. In a Washington Post opinion piece that he co-wrote that month, Hagel stated that he believed in “keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force.”
In 2006, Kahl explained, the United States still had 150,000 troops in nearby Iraq, and Iran was far from reaching the kind of capability that would enable it to build a nuclear bomb (an intent that Iran denies). Now, U.S forces are already out of Iraq and are on their way out of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Iran has moved closer to being able to build a bomb, and Hagel’s views have shifted in response to all these factors.
Even if differences with the White House develop further down the road, Washington’s clear lines of hierarchy could limit friction. As commander in chief, Obama is solely responsible for decisions of war and peace.
“In this administration, foreign policy, and specifically policy on Iran, is set at the White House,” said Kahl, who is now an associate professor at Georgetown University. “It is not an issue in which the president is seeking the counsel of the secretary of defense, or an issue he is willing to have his mind changed on.”
Still as Obama’s top adviser on military issues, Hagel will have input.
“No president will make this call without the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and an expert on military affairs relating to the Middle East. “The job of defense secretary is to tell the president what he can hope to achieve on the ground.”
Experts diverge in their views on the impact that a war skeptic such as Hagel working as defense secretary will have on the dynamics of the U.S.-Iran standoff. Writing in Commentary, neoconservative analyst Max Boot from the Council on Foreign Relations argued that having Hagel in the Pentagon would send to the region a message of American reluctance to take on Iran.
“At that point, the balance of opinion within the Israeli security establishment could very well shift in favor of a unilateral strike,” Boot predicted.
Others countered that having Hagel at the Pentagon’s helm would give added political weight to the administration’s dealings with Iran. Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, predicted that Obama’s new national security team, with Hagel alongside dovish Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts as secretary of state, will be ideally positioned to present to Iran a credible offer. Moreover, if that effort fails, Ibish wrote, ”it is also the ideal group to convince the American public that… these are precisely the policymakers who can be relied upon to [support military action] only as a last resort and because there are no other options.”
A Pentagon chief averse to using military power against Iran wouldn’t be a novelty. Leon Panetta, the current defense secretary, took to the podium at a Washington conference in December 2011 and made clear that war is not a preferred option. “Our approach to countering the threat posed by Iran is focused on diplomacy, including organizing unprecedented sanctions and strengthening our security partnerships with key partners in the Gulf and in the broader Middle East,” Panetta said. His predecessor, Robert Gates, warned that a military strike against Iran would “prove catastrophic”.
These views also reflect the reluctance of U.S. military commanders to launch another American front at a time when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are winding down. The military establishment demonstrated very little enthusiasm when Obama decided to intervene in Libya. Ironically, as defense secretary, Hagel will probably have less influence on sanctions policy than he had as a lawmaker with a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Pentagon chief has little to say on sanction legislation, which is discussed and decided among Congress, the White House and the State Department.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman.