Hagel, Brennan, Kerry – Business As Usual

So now we know President Obama’s nominees for the major national security and foreign policy slots in his second administration. John Kerry for Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel for the Department of Defence and John Brennan for the CIA.

To me, that sounds like a “business as usual” set of selections. Out of them all Hagel, the former Republican, is currently attracting far more Republican outrage than the two stalwart Democrats – indicative of just how little change to the Washington foreign policy consensus is being made here. As Charles Davis writes, “the usual sky-is-falling crowd is making much ado about nothing with respect to a guy who, outside of a few maverick-y speeches over the years, adheres to the Washington consensus as much as the next old white guy.” Charles’ piece is worth reading in full. He continues:

some of the charges against Hagel can politely be called “silly.” One can disagree about the wisdom of Israeli wars, for instance, without being a raging anti-Semite, and indeed much of the Israeli establishment would privately concede their 2006 war was a bust. And with politicians talking of slashing Social Security, you damned well better believe it’s not a gaffe to say maybe we ought to take a quick look at where half the average American’s income tax goes: the military. Such a defense might have some value.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the pro-Hagel campaign is doing. Instead, they’re billing the fight over Hagel’s nomination as a defining battle of Obama’s second term. If Hagel wins, the argument goes, AIPAC loses, opening up the foreign policy debate in Washington and increasing the possibility of peace in our time. If his nomination goes down, however, that reinforces the idea that the hawkish foreign policy consensus in Washington shall not be challenged and that even the mildest criticisms of Israel cannot be tolerated. Some even suggest that who administers the Defense Department could decide if there’s a war with Iran or not, perhaps forgetting the chain of command.

He’s right and it is beyond silly. Republican outrage at Hagel stems mainly from his failure to have a pure essence – he’s switching sides. Their obstructivist policies and own internal purity narrative cannot allow that to stand, and as is usual every slur they can think up is being levelled – with the primary slur being anti-semitism. That slur ties in with their insistence to their base that Obama is an enemy of Israel too, further painting the Right into its own rhetorical corner.  Hagel is as widely supportive of Israel as Obama is himself – that is, very supportive – but the Right cannot admit that. The Obama administration’s supporters find themselves in a position of defending Obama and Hagel’s loyalty to Israel and so AIPAC go laughing to the bank whichever way the nomination comes out. Meanwhile, Hagel’s own staffers are producing a factsheet promising he’s well within the D.C. hawkish mainstream. This is a “big deal’ in D.C.’s coridors of power but means no change worth mentioning to the rest of us.

Spencer Ackerman: Is Chuck Hagel a Hippie? Only if You Ignore His Record

Brennan isn’t a change of course either, more a doubling-down. The man in charge of maintaining and publicly defending Obama’s Tuesday Kill List gets to head up the CIA – that means drones, drones and more drones. Foreign Policy magazine notes:

Obama is reported to have passed over a well-regarded No. 2 at CIA in tapping John Brennan, the White House’s counterterrorism adviser and a 25-year veteran of the agency, to become the head of CIA, report a number of news outlets. …  Many thought and hoped that Obama would pick Mike Morell, now the deputy at CIA, to help refocus the agency on its more conventional mission of intelligence collection and analysis, as opposed to drone strikes and other paramilitary operations that Brennan has advocated, at least in the past.

And also: Micah Zenko, Spencer again.

As for Kerry – the man who was for the Iraq war before he was against it is now for NATO airstrikes in Syria, to establish safe zones while arming the opposition. On Iran, he has repeatedly said he believes it is seeking an actual weapon, rather than the capacity to build one swiftly  and that he’s committed to ever more sanctions. He only doesn’t back war as a first choice because he realizes it “would be difficult” rather than because war is a horrible thing that should be avoided. Again, he is “liberal” only be comparison to the center-right interventionist consensus in Washington and even then only “liberal” at some of the margins.

Perhaps the best that can be said of all three nominations is that Obama believes they have reasons to be personally loyal to him, and to only leak to the press when he tells them to.

Update [matttbastard]: One more (nakedly partisan) boon for Obama re: Hagel, as outlined by Zachary Keck:

President Obama’s selection of Hagel was likely guided primarily by the former senator’s policy expertise and their personal relationship. That being said, the politics of choosing Hagel could not have been lost on Obama or his political strategists. With the GOP already facing a tenuous couple of months with debates over the debt ceiling and government spending on the agenda, the White House has now added Hagel’s confirmation into this combustible mix.

In some ways, this will merely strengthen existing divisions within the GOP. Hagel is a DC insider who spent twelve years in the Senate and has strong ties with many establishment Republican senators and veteran Capitol Hill staffers. Many of these individuals—though certainly not all of them—will find it difficult to oppose his confirmation, especially if he makes personal appeals. On the other hand, since the 2010 election (Hagel left the Senate in 2009) there have been at least 18 new GOP Senators to take office that still hold it, although some were previously House members. While not all of the new GOP senators are Tea Partiers or anti-establishment Republicans, many are, and these members will have few personal loyalists to Hagel and are likely to see him as an Obama stooge; a RINO (Republican in Name Only) in every sense of the word.

That being said, the true political genius of Hagel’s nomination for Obama and the Democrats is that it will exacerbate the already messy divisions inflicting the Republican Party. For example, members of the libertarian camp of the Tea Party such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) may actually support Hagel preciously because of his views on defense spending and Middle East policy. Thus, while remaining united with Tea Party members on the debt ceiling and spending cuts, Paul and others may find solidarity with certain establishment Republicans over Hagel’s nomination. In the same vein, some establishment Republicans like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who are traditionally moderate and inclined to compromise on domestic issues, will almost certainly unite with anti-establishment Republicans that oppose Hagel’s confirmation.

Um, hooray?

Update 2: Fred Kaplan actually gets something right. The Real Reason Republicans Hate Hagel: It has more to do with President Obama than the former senator from Nebraska.

Update 3 [matttbastard]Obama: “Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve”:

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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