Obama Upends Iran Debate By Picking Chuck Hagel

The president shatters four years of fragile consensus and opens a real foreign policy debate.

Obama and Hagel in 2009. Jim Young / Reuters

President Barack Obama’s decision to nominate former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense Monday will shatter a fake consensus on American policy toward Iran and challenge what have increasingly become limits of Washington conversation about Israel.

Administration officials say Obama chose Hagel for mundane reasons — a personal relationship, experience with veterans issues, and even the “tradition” — but they have thrust the combative former combat veteran into a bitter Washington battleground. And the left-leaning foreign policy forces who spent four years disappointed in a the president of drone strikes and surveillance powers are suddenly feeling vindication. They are, in particular, seeing a fellow foe of a military strike on Iran elevated to a key cabinet post — and a president who seems finally willing to pick a fight on that issue.

“The Hagel confirmation battle will show whether the AIPAC crowd has cried wolf too many times and the system is now becoming numb,” said Steve Clemons, a central figure in what he calls “progressive realist” foreign policy and Washington editor at large for The Atlantic. The fight “will also out the fact that the real issue here is not US-Israel relations but rather how fearful defense contractors which suck up a huge amount of defense spending are pulling a lot of these levers,” he said.

“The controversy leading up to the Hagel nomination has tested just how much space there is in Washington for rational and independent thinking on American policy in the Middle East,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, which was formed in part to make domestic politcal space for Obama to exert pressure on Israel. “It’s good to see the nomination moving forward because it means there’s more bark than bite to the intimidation some right-wing groups have tried to exert over those who disagree with them.”

Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor who’s now a leading voice well to that magazine’s left made a similar case column to be published on Monday on his Open Zion blog at The Daily Beast that “At the heart of the opposition to Hagel is the fear that he will do what Republicans have thus far largely prevented: bring America’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan into the Iran debate.”

Beinart also defended a controversial Hagel jab at the “Jewish lobby,” arguing that it’s a sentiment that many in Washington hold but few say aloud and that Hagel displayed “uncommon honesty.”

“I’ve also heard many government officials, some of them Jewish, say things similar to what Hagel is now being flayed for having [said],” Beinart wrote. “The difference is that those other officials first confirmed that they were speaking off the record. One even lowered his voice and closed the door.”

Their hope — and their foes’ fear — is that Hagel’s confirmation could mean that views outside what is considered the mainstream on Israel and Iran begin to replace the more hawkish Washington consensus. A Hagel confirmation could change the terms of the debate on the Middle East by challenging the Republican Party with the views of one of its own. And Hagel, a Republican whose views were altered by the Iraq war, has the potential to affect the prospect of a war with Iran, some argue.

Administration officials, in public and in private, do not make this case, though they say they’re eager to engage the debate.

“If the Republicans are going to look at Chuck Hagel, a decorated war hero and Republican who served two terms in the Senate, and vote no because he bucked the party line on Iraq, then they are so far in the wilderness that they’ll never get out,” said one administration official.

The official also contested the notion that the choice Hagel — who voted in the Senate against Iran sanctions — means anything in particular about the Administration’s policy on Iran.

“Senator Hagel supports the President’s sanctions regime on Iran, and has always said that all options should be on the table, including military force as a last resort,” the official said, also saying that Hagel “will continue to carry out President Obama’s unprecedented security cooperation with Israel.”

But the way in which the lines have been drawn means that — whatever Hagel’s role in making policy — the fight over his confirmation will shape it. A bipartisan coalition of pro-Israel members of Congress and activists, as well as allies with other agendas, helped derail the nomination of a career diplomat with friendly relationship with Arab regimes, Chas Freeman, to an obscure intelligence advisory council.

If you aren’t listening closely, it can be difficult to detect the gaps between Barack Obama’s eagerness to avoid the use of force with Iran; the somewhat noisier concerns of Senate Democrats about Iran’s nuclear program; and the sense among some Republicans and some Israeli leaders that American bombs should start falling now.

The Republican National Committee on Sunday, after near-total silence during the fiscal cliff fight, publicly came out against Hagel, joining a chorus of Republican lawmakers who have done the same. And Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran aren’t the only targets. Democrats have raised questions about his conservative voting record on issues like abortion, and his outspoken opposition to gay rights.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN Sunday morning that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history.”

The fight, some foreign policy observers say, is primarily symbolic. Obama “is the most controlling and withholding foreign policy and national security president since Richard Nixon,” said Aaron David Miller, a former longtime Middle East diplomat. “It doesn’t really matter on the core issues of the day what John Kerry or Chuck Hagel think on any one issue.”

But Obama, who was elected in large part for his opposition to war in the Middle East, and whose central foreign policy accomplishments include withdrawal from Iraq and, now, Afghanistan, appears at least to be sending a message that he is not eager to make war on Iran.

And Administration officials say they weren’t looking for a fight, and didn’t intend a messy flotation. (They say a Hagel bumper sticker was spotted on his car when he arrived at a key meeting.) And administration is projecting confidence that Hagel will be confirmed, though four Republican senators so far — John Cornyn, Tom Coburn, Lindsey Graham, and Ted Cruz — have said they would vote against confirming Hagel, and some key Democrats have yet to defend him.

But they are now preparing for one, circulating documents and articles supporting Hagel. And they’re announcing Hagel’s nomination swiftly to rally Democrats around him.

“What we learned from Susan [Rice’s failed bid for Secretary of State] is that nobody is going to put political skin in the game before a nominee is announced,” the White House official said.

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