Opinion: Obama sends message with Hagel pick

January 12, 2013


“This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” — Barack Obama to Dmitry Medvedev, March 26, 2012

The puzzle of the Chuck Hagel nomination for defense secretary is that you normally choose someone of the other party for your Cabinet to indicate a move to the center, but, as The Washington Post editorial board points out, Hagel’s foreign policy views are to the left of Barack Obama’s, let alone the GOP’s. Indeed, they are at the fringe of the entire Senate.

So what’s going on? Message sending. Obama won re-election. He no longer has to trim, to appear more moderate than his true instincts. He has the “flexibility” to be authentically Obama.

Hence the Hagel choice: Under the guise of centrist bipartisanship, it allows the president to leave the constrained first-term Obama behind and follow his natural Hagel-like foreign policy inclinations. On three pressing issues in particular:

  1. Military spending

Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in August 2011 that the scheduled automatic $600 billion defense cuts (“sequestration”) would result in “hollowing out the force,” which would be “devastating.” And strongly hinted that he might resign rather than enact them.  

Asked about Panetta’s remarks, Hagel called the Pentagon “bloated,” and needing “to be pared down.” Just the man you’d want to carry out a U.S. disarmament that will shrink America to what Obama thinks is its proper size on the world stage, i.e. smaller. The overweening superpower that Obama promiscuously chided in his global we-have-sinned tour is poised for reduction, not only to fund the bulging welfare state but to recalibrate America’s proper role in the world.

  1. Israel

The issue is not Hagel’s alleged hostility but his public pronouncements. His refusal to make moral distinctions, for example. At the height of the second intifada, a relentless campaign of indiscriminate massacre of Israelis, Hagel found innocence abounding: “Both Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a war not of their making.”

This pass at evenhandedness is nothing but pernicious blindness. Just last month, Yasser Arafat’s widow admitted on Dubai TV what everyone has long known — that Arafat deliberately launched the intifada after the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in July 2000. He told his wife to stay in the safety of Paris. Why, she asked? Because I’m going to start an intifada.

In July 2002, with the terror still raging, Hagel offered further exquisite evenhandedness: “Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace.” Good God. Exactly two years earlier Israel had proposed an astonishingly generous peace that offered Arafat a Palestinian state — and half of Jerusalem, a previously unimaginable Israeli concession. Arafat said no, made no counteroffer, walked away and started his terror war. Did no one tell Hagel?

  1. Iran

Hagel doesn’t just oppose military action, a problematic option with serious arguments on both sides. He actually opposed any unilateral sanctions. You can’t get more out of the mainstream than that.

He believes in diplomacy instead, as if talk alone will deter the mullahs. He even voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

Most tellingly, he has indicated that he is prepared to contain a nuclear Iran, a position diametrically opposed to Obama’s first-term, ostensibly unalterable opposition to containment. What message do you think this sends the mullahs?

And that’s the point. Hagel himself doesn’t matter. He won’t make foreign policy. Obama will. Hagel’s importance is the message his nomination sends about where Obama wants to go. The lessons are being duly drawn. Iran’s official media have already cheered the choice of what they call this “anti-Israel” nominee. And they fully understand what his nomination signals regarding administration resolve about stopping them from going nuclear.

The rest of the world can see coming the Pentagon downsizing — and the inevitable, commensurate decline of U.S. power. Pacific Rim countries will have to rethink reliance on the counterbalance of the U.S. Navy and consider acquiescence to Chinese regional hegemony. Arab countries will understand that the current rapid decline of post-Kissinger U.S. dominance in the region is not cyclical but intended to become permanent.

Hagel is a man of no independent stature. He’s no George Marshall or Henry Kissinger. A fringe senator who left no trace behind, Hagel matters only because of what his nomination says about Obama.

However the Senate votes on confirmation, the signal has already been sent. Before Election Day, Obama could only whisper it to his friend Dmitry. Now, with Hagel, he’s told the world.

— Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Abdu Omar 5 years, 4 months ago

You know, mr Krathammer, your comments about Israel are always incomplete and not telling the whole story. The "offer" that was given to Arafat would split up the Palestinian territories so that there would be no continuity of land. A little island here and one there. And no travelling between them! What kind of "offer" was that? It was totally in Israel's best insterest to keep the Palestinians apart so they could conquer each one as they willed. Arafat wasn't the smartest man in the middle east, but he could tell when he was being played. This wasn't an offer to help anyone but Israel and YOU KNOW IT!

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Compare that offer to the one proposed a couple of decades earlier, the Peele Commission report. That proposal would have split the Jewish communities into two islands. The intent was to give land to the Jews where they were the majority and Arabs lands where they were the majority. (Of course, the Peele Report would have denied Jews control of Jerusalem despite being in the majority, the British wanted to maintain control of that city). What was the result of that? The Arabs rejected that proposal as well. It appeared the Jews would be willing to accept that proposal, but once the Arabs rejected it, it became a moot point. So what are you arguing, wounded? Arafat rejected the proposal that would have split Palestinians in two, but they also rejected the proposal that wouldn't have done that. You can't have it both ways.

The point is that every compromise is going to have elements within it that one side, the other, or both will find objectionable. That's how compromises work. If you're looking for a solution where every country in the region, every group, every tribe, every individual person will be happy with, then you will be looking forever. Sometimes, hard choices will need to be made. Make them, or suffer the consequences.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Hagel's positions are perfectly reasonable and rational-- no wonder Chuckie doesn't like him.

funkdog1 5 years, 4 months ago

Hear hear! Finally, some rational military thinking as opposed to testosterone-fuled posturing and obscene waste of taxpayer money. (Of course, we'll still waste plenty of money on the military, but any steps to trim are welcome.)

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

Cutting a bloated Pentagon is off-limits. Cutting education and "entitlements" is fair game.

ThePilgrim 5 years, 4 months ago

Two key points of Palestinian/PLO demands have always included : 1. "right of return" - in other words "hand over the land that we used to own". No one ever will do that, for it means the destruction of Israel. 2. All of Jerusalem as a capitol. Half of Jerusalem was not enough. Arafat knew that if he accepted the Oslo peace accords without these then he would be assassinated on his return.

Alyosha 5 years, 4 months ago

Krauthammer is apparently confused. Hagel is not nominated for the United States Secretary of Israeli Security.

Krauthammer's loyalty to the United States is obviously suspect: he puts another country's security ahead of our own.

verity 5 years, 4 months ago

Oh, Krauthammer noses out another President Obama bad. How novel!

Alyosha: "Krauthammer's loyalty to the United States is obviously suspect: he puts another country's security ahead of our own." Along with William Krystle, Paul Wolfowitz and a number of other neocons.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

"He believes in diplomacy instead" on Iran

Well, I find it hard to believe that we would want anyone in a cabinet position not to prefer diplomacy. Krauthammer is making stuff up in this piece. I don't trust his opinion. Especially after what his position was about going into Iraq. He was a big proponent of doing that. He was wrong then just as many were. Back then it was "liberals" who were anti American who did not think it was a good idea to go into Iraq.

I can't believe I was a sucker back then and believed these guys. I actually believed in the WMD argument.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

"The Pentagon is a bloated argument"

Why is it off limits for some to even suggest cutting military spending or look to ways make it more efficient and save money?

If right wingers think entitlements are bloated, why do many of them not think the same thing about military spending? And war?

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

The Government Accountability Office was unable to provide an audit opinion on the 2010 financial statements of the U.S. government due to "widespread material internal control weaknesses, significant uncertainties, and other limitations."[15] The GAO cited as the principal obstacle to its provision of an audit opinion "serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense that made its financial statements unauditable."[15]

US Government Accountability Office. http://www.gao.gov/press/financial_report_2010dec21.html. Retrieved 6 January 2011.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

Where did you get your number from? In general, this is a pie chart of what the US spends per budget:

Military 20%, Social Security 20%, Medicare/Medicade 23%.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

Here is Charles back in the days before we went into Iraq. I will not listen to any of his opinions now days.....for this very reason.


Orwell 5 years, 4 months ago

The J-W could save money on ink and newsprint by reducing all Krauthammer columns to the essentials: "Obama did/said/thinks something, therefore it's bad."

Anyone can find fault if there's sufficient determination to do so. At some point (and Krauthammer's reflexive condemnations passed that pint long ago) paying attention is no longer worthwhile.

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