Hawkish groups that sought to pre-emptively sink Chuck Hagel’s candidacy for secretary of defense may have been trying to teach President Obama and his supporters a lesson — but it seems they’re the ones who may look back at this episode as a cautionary tale.
“You don’t want to wound the king,” Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, told me. The anti-Hagel camp miscalculated, he said, and will likely “lose this fight, and look impotent.”
Ultimately, that may give Obama, and those urging him to be bolder in his efforts to get a diplomatic deal with Iran, “more space” for his national security priorities, Cirincione said.
“When I look at what he is doing: There were other capable candidates for secretary of defense, but they didn’t bring everything Chuck Hagel brought, and that level of trust and comfort,” he said. “And when you look around, you see that Obama is basically assembling his own gangster squad. John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John Brennan, added to Biden, Denis McDonough. These are his guys.”
This new team — if Obama indeed wins Hagel’s confirmation battle — may give him the opportunity to more aggressively pursue goals such as global nuclear arms reductions and bolder diplomacy to try to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. “It looks like he is positioning himself to make the dramatic change in national security policy that he promised [in 2008] and that he wants to make,” Cirincione added.
The Obama administration knows that the Hagel nomination “is like picking up a rock and discovering all the nasties underneath,” a Democratic source close to the administration told me on condition of anonymity. The administration “may not have wanted to have a fight at the outset, but I think at least some want to have this fight now, to shine a light on some really awful, blackmail-style politics. They are sick of these groups boxing them in and want a public fight to expose them and hopefully put them in their place.”
“If they win, it may expand space for actual ‘moderate’ voices on Israel [and] Iran,” the Democratic source said. “The stakes are really high — so they better go all in and win.”
Some Washington Middle East analysts worry about how Iran will perceive Hagel’s nomination. They fear it may signal to Tehran that the United States is unwilling to use force to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, as Obama has vowed to do, if other options fail. Hagel’s “views are to the left of the president on key issues,” one worried Washington insider who works on Middle East issues and requested anonymity told me. “People are wondering what message is Iran getting at this critical time…. If [Hagel has] ever said, ‘Put everything on the table,’ maybe I missed it.”
(In fact, Hagel co-authored a Washington Post oped in October 2012 analyzing the risks and potential objectives of the military option on Iran. “Though not the only way to achieve these objectives, a U.S. attack would demonstrate the country’s credibility as an ally to other nations in the region and would derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions for several years, providing space for other, potentially longer-term solutions,” he co-wrote. “An attack would also make clear the United States’ full commitment to nonproliferation as other nations contemplate moves in that direction.”)
Iran expert Trita Parsi says what such analysis misses is the very fact that because Hagel — as well as Obama and John Kerry — has not thrown out loose war talk, it would make a credible threat of force versus Iran from them that much more credible.
“In my view, it’s the opposite. In the sense that when someone like Chuck Hagel says the military option is on the table, it carries far more credibility,” Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, told me.
What lesson might hawks take away from the episode? That their overreach has a cost, one that has generated a backlash and a determination to fight on the part of the administration that may result in a real diminution of their influence, both real and perceived, in Washington policy debates during Obama’s second term.
“For people to go out and accuse this twice-decorated soldier of being an anti-Semite,” Parsi said, is a bridge too far, crossing a line of decency even by Washington’s debased standards. Indeed, once the White House signaled that the Hagel nomination was in motion, much of the organized opposition seemed to melt away almost overnight, revealing a rather diminished assembly of mostly GOP special interests — the Emergency Committee for Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and WashingtonPost.com “right turn” columnist Jennifer Rubin — that are already overwhelmingly hostile to Obama and single-handedly generating most of the Sturm und Drang smear campaign against Hagel.
“Chuck knows war is not an abstraction,” Obama pointedly said in the White House ceremony announcing his choice, drawing an implicit contrast with Washington’s cadre of armchair warriors. “He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and the mud is something we only do when absolutely necessary.”
Laura Rozen writes the Back Channel column for Al-Monitor. She previously served as a foreign policy reporter for the magazine Foreign Policy and for the websites Politico and Yahoo! News. You can follow her on Twitter at @lrozen.