Home/How Do We Know Why President Obama Wants Chuck Hagel Anyway?

How Do We Know Why President Obama Wants Chuck Hagel Anyway?

I basically agree with Peter Beinart in his analysis of the state of play of the Hagel not-yet-nomination for Secretary of Defense. If the idea was to “test the waters” for a possibly-controversial nomination, the ploy has failed, and backed the President into either fighting harder for somebody who might have been less-controversial if fought for earlier, or into abandoning the potential nominee without a fight, and looking weak.

I think Hagel would be a perfectly reasonable Secretary of Defense, and I certainly see no basis for the attacks on him. But before we wring our hands too hard over the possibility of his being withdrawn (or, much less likely, defeated), we should stop to ask why President Obama wanted him for the job in the first place.

It’s pleasant to think that the President actually wants Hagel’s advice, but that strikes me as somewhat unlikely. First of all, the President, by all reports, takes most of his advice from a very close circle. Though Obama got a favorable impression of him in his brief time in the Senate, Hagel isn’t in that circle. Second, what’s Hagel going to offer advice about? Handling the DoD? Hagel has expressed an interest in trimming the fat at Defense – but that’s very different from seeming like the sort of person who would be effective at out-maneuvering vested interests who will oppose that trimming. Handling Iran? Hagel’s shown a real interest in an approach that emphasizes the desire for normal relations over one that assumes a confrontational posture is the only realistic option, but that’s not the same thing as saying that he has any particular regional expertise. Handling Congress? Was Hagel a notably effective Senator?

Another possibility is, as noted, that the President wanted to make a point – to signal that he was interested in a less-confrontational foreign policy, and in modestly reducing military spending. But if he wanted to send a signal, why send it tentatively?

Meanwhile, the opposite interpretation is also possible: that the President wanted someone like Hagel to endorse whatever his policies already are. In the same way that it was valuable for President Bush to have Colin Powell on board to establish the pro-war position as the consensus, it would be valuable for President Obama to have Chuck Hagel at Defense if he is planning on continuing a confrontational policy towards Iran – precisely because Hagel has criticized that policy from the perspective of traditional realist internationalism.

And a third possibility is that President Obama didn’t think that carefully about the symbolism of the choice, but thought of Hagel simply as “a Republican I can work with” that would earn bi-partisan points for bringing him in. That would have been foolish of him, but you know, discounting the possibility of incompetence is rarely wise in evaluating what goes on in Washington.

My point is that we don’t really know why President Obama floated Hagel for the position, and that the choice is consistent with mutually-opposed interpretations with respect to policy. Similarly, if President Obama had appointed a relatively hawkish Democrat to the position – Hillary Clinton, say – that wouldn’t necessarily tell you that he was determined to move in a hawkish direction. It could just as easily mean that he wants to win persuadable hawks over to a less-hawkish policy.

It’s worth recalling that many of the voices in the first term who were inclined towards a less-aggressive strategy in Southwest Asia (National Security Advisor Jim Jones, for example) wound up leaving after losing internal battles over Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy. The winner in those battles was Secretary Bob Gates, who has been lumped in with Hagel as both being Republicans who aren’t beholden to the hawkish views that dominate that party.

Leaving aside the possible symbolic meaning of such an appointment (if it comes to pass), the real question is whether Hagel would be effective at managing the Pentagon. I don’t have any particular insight on that question, but it’s not obvious to me that Hagel fits that particular bill. The last Secretary of Defense I can recall who muscled material reductions in military spending was a fellow named Dick Cheney. And look what he turned into after 9-11. So you really never can tell.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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