The Hagel nomination and Obama’s second term

Chuck Hagel is not a terrible choice to lead the Pentagon, but he's not much better than that

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Taylor Dibbert
On 8 January 2013 08:53

President Barack Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense. With John Brennan tapped to be CIA director and John Kerry as the next Secretary of State, Obama’s second-term foreign policy team appears to be coming together.

John Kerry will be confirmed easily by the Senate. It’s unlikely that the Senate’s confirmation of John Brennan will go as smoothly – largely because Mr. Brennan will be asked to answer numerous questions about Obama’s counterterrorism policies, including the dramatic escalation of predator drone strikes over the past four years. However, the Kerry and Brennan hearings will probably both make Hagel's look like a police interrogation.

Mr. Hagel is in for a serious fight. He has already been harshly criticized by leading Republicans for his views on Israel and Iran. Others have lambasted him for his limited foreign policy accomplishments.

Chuck Hagel is not a terrible choice to lead the Pentagon. That being said, he most certainly isn’t the best choice. The irony here is that Hagel is a Republican, and that there are several Democratic candidates – including Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy – whom Republicans would prefer over Hagel.

On the other hand, Hagel is a Vietnam Veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts. He also seems to share Obama’s worldview about the use of American troops abroad and would likely go along with significant cuts to the Defense budget. Furthermore, Hagel’s ascension to Secretary of Defense will probably not dramatically alter the course of Obama’s foreign policy. Appallingly, the death toll in Syria has now reached 60,000, yet the Obama administration still has not acted. Putting Hagel at Defense makes a stronger Syria policy even less likely.

Obama will have plenty on his plate during his second term, but the President’s inability or unwillingness to lead is discouraging. He will need to spend serious political capital to get Mr. Hagel confirmed which will mean that precious time and resources are not being spent on other issues like immigration reform, energy policy, and gun control.

Most importantly, debate about the budget and the debt ceiling is only just beginning. Republicans have already made clear that tax increases will not be a part of the upcoming negotiations. And yet Obama has stated categorically that he is not interested in negotiating with Congress. Obama displayed a lack of leadership during the most recent fiscal cliff negotiations and eventually Vice President Joe Biden had to step in to fill the void. (The same thing happened in 2011)

The disappointing reality is that President Obama has never seemed that interested in working with a (highly dysfunctional) Congress; lawmakers could be in for more of the same during the next four years. With Congressional approval ratings at such low levels, Obama wants to distance himself from the institution. But the elections are over and Obama has won; perhaps the president may now want to focus more on the act of governing, as opposed to approval ratings or polling data.

The nomination of Mr. Hagel will invariably squander Obama’s political capital on the Hill. It is a reminder that Obama’s relations with Congress are unlikely to improve significantly during his second term. It may also be a reminder that Obama remains largely uninterested in the negotiation and debate surrounding legislative processes more generally.

Having already demonstrated that he is “leading from behind” on foreign policy, the past few weeks have shown that President Obama is willing to lead from behind on the domestic front as well. Americans deserve better. Mitt Romney didn’t make a very convincing case that he deserved four years in the Oval Office. Nevertheless, if last four years did not provide enough evidence, these past few weeks are a reminder that President Obama hasn’t either.

Taylor Dibbert is a consultant. He is also a columnist for International Policy Digest and the author of the book 'Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth'

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