The large-scale turnover in personnel that often comes at the beginning of a president’s second term most frequently draws a collective yawn from the public and the opposition party. After all, presidents generally replace one supporter with another, and those officials, even at the cabinet level, do less to set policy than to carry out the policy desires of the President who appointed them. Presidents can, however, use these appointments to send signals about their policy priorities for their second term, and the signals that President Obama is sending with the selection of former Senator Chuck Hagel as his nominee to become the new Secretary of Defense are, at best, troubling.
There has been much discussion about Senator Hagel’s seemingly weak support of Israel in the past. While he is now saying the right things publicly about supporting our biggest ally in the Middle East and is trying to smooth over things with those whom he has offended with statements about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in D.C., it would be difficult to read this selection as anything even approaching a strong signal of support for Israel by the President. At a time when the President’s policies and needless slights have created a strain in our relationship with Israel, he could have signaled to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he intended to ease those tensions by choosing someone with a clear record of supporting our ally in the past. Instead, he has chosen someone who has had to explain away previous actions and statements that can be viewed as anti-Israeli. Certainly, Prime Minister Netanyahu is not likely to see this pick as evidence that things are going to get better. In fact, intentionally or not, the President is signaling to Israel (and to other nations in the Middle East), that the United States cannot be counted on to provide the support that Israel needs, especially if the Iranian nuclear program continues to move forward.
This leads to the second signal that Hagel’s nomination sends – this time to the Iranians. The person whom the President has chosen to run the Department of Defense is someone who not only does not favor the use of military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but has also opposed the use of sanctions against Iran and has even gone so far as to suggest that we should not be that concerned about the program in the first place (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323468604578247870646291086.html). The President spoke once again in his inaugural address last week about the importance of engagement as a central component of his foreign policy, and Hagel’s nomination only reinforces that his main focus in dealing with Iran (as well as with other rogue nations), is to try to make nice with them to convince them to change paths, presumably after we have cleared up the “suspicion and fear” that causes them to want such dangerous weapons in the first place. I would argue that it is rather a lack of fear of the United States that allows for a country such as Iran to try to increase its influence over its neighbors by pursuing nuclear weapons, and not the case that Iran feels compelled to try to protect itself from us by pursuing weapons of mass destruction. So, this signal that we are not going to get tough on Iran will only reassure its leaders that they can continue to thumb their noses at the rest of the world with impunity. And why shouldn’t they? Nothing that has happened in the last four years has given them pause.
Finally, Hagel’s support for cuts in defense spending and, in particular, for further reductions in our nuclear forces are, to say the least, unusual for someone chosen to be the Secretary of Defense. While the outgoing Secretary, Leon Panetta, has repeatedly said that the automatic cuts in defense that are part of the sequester agreement would “hollow out the military,” (http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=117418), Hagel has emphasized his view that the Defense Department is “bloated” and needs to be trimmed (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2013/01/17/white-house-struggles-with-chuck-hagel/). At a time when those cuts are looming and negotiations between the White House and Republicans are needed to avert sequestration, the President is signaling that he would be ok with letting the Pentagon take the brunt of those cuts. Internationally, unfortunately, he is also signaling to our allies that we will not be as capable of helping to defend them and to our adversaries that they we will be less capable of stopping them in the future.
Many others have raised these concerns (Charles Krauthammer made a very similar argument a couple of weeks ago http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-the-meaning-of-hagel/2013/01/10/12a37c48-5b5f-11e2-9fa9-5fbdc9530eb9_story.html), and there are both elected officials and private citizens currently working to defeat Hagel’s nomination. (It is worth noting that Barack Obama may be the only president who could manage to choose someone from the opposition party for a cabinet level position, yet do so in such a way as to spark a strong backlash from that party. Such is his touch when it comes to bipartisanship.) Rejecting Hagel will not change the President’s policies, but it will remind both the White House and international leaders that our system operates with a separation of powers and that the President’s preferences do not, alone, drive U.S. policies. President Obama is not the only one who can send signals. Let us hope that the Senate chooses to send its own strong signal by defeating Chuck Hagel’s nomination.