Obama’s latest adoptions

Obama’s latest adoptions
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Here’s a revealing fact highlighting the truly meritocratic system of American presidential cabinet-making: while four of the last six presidential elections have been won by Democrats, four of the last six defense secretaries will have been Republicans.

On Monday, President Obama announced that his departing head of the Pentagon, former Democratic Congressman Leon Panetta, will be replaced by former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel. In making such a bipartisan pick, Obama is not only conceding one of the sad truisms of Washington — namely, that it’s hard to find a Democrat significantly learned in (or even interested in) military and security matters — but following in the footsteps of past Democratic administrations as well. William Cohen, Bill Clinton’s longest-serving defense secretary, was also a former Republican politician, and Obama himself ran most of his first term with a Pentagon headed by Republican Robert M. Gates, a Bush-era holdover.

In a parliamentary system, it’s impossible to imagine such a plum cabinet spot being willingly conceded this way; almost any hack would be better than a member of the, ugh, opposition (I’m reminded of the fact that Canada’s minister of national defense in the aftermath of 9-11 was Art Eggleton, the washed-up former mayor of Toronto). The fact that Obama resisted the temptation to stick, say, Barbara Boxer, in DoD reflects well not only on the President’s post-partisan charity, but also the institutionalized high expectations of the political system he leads.

This week’s other headline-grabbing cabinet shuffle was of course the replacement of tired and ailing Hillary Clinton with forgotten 2004 presidential also-ran John Kerry as Obama’s secretary of state, in what is admittedly a far more conventional pick. One of the great ironies, however, is that this former Democrat flag-bearer will probably have an easier time being confirmed by Republicans in the Senate than his intended GOP cabinet-mate.

The problem is ideological. Hagel, a 66-year-old Vietnam vet and former head of the USO, is one of those almost-extinct creatures, a free-thinking, moderate Republican — particularly in matters of foreign policy. On practically every contentious national security type-issue of the last decade, Hagel has been a cautious, pragmatic realist, championing positions that have frequently brought him into alliance with some of Congress’ most liberal Democrats.

Though Senator Hagel voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002, it was a vote he came to regret. He quickly embraced the Hillary Clinton line that he had expected the Bush administration to pursue “more diplomacy” before military action, and spent much of the remainder of his Senate career calling for restraint and withdrawal. Like John Kerry, he saw Vietnam analogies everywhere in what he openly called a war for oil, and was a staunch opponent of the 2007 surge. He chose to stay neutral in 2008 rather than endorse John McCain.

On Iran, he was skeptical even of sanctions. On Afghanistan, he thinks we’ve stayed “well beyond our mission.” On Syria, he believes a US invasion is “the last thing you want.” The Pentagon budget? “Bloated.” The UN? “I’m a strong supporter.”

Most infamously of all, however, Hagel has been a consistent skeptic of Israel, and an almost equally consistent Palestinian apologist. He’s argued for greater understanding of why Palestinians commit terror attacks, advocated direct talks with Hamas and Hezbollah, and has been a sometimes inelegant critic of what he’s dubbed the “intimidation” tactics of Washington’s powerful “Jewish Lobby.”

These positions are all heretical to large portions of the GOP establishment, and reaction to the Hagel nomination has been swift and harsh. GOP.com has churned out an enormous opposition press release documenting his various sins of word and deed, several of his former caucusmates have vowed to vote against his confirmation, and Rick Santorum’s Super PAC has launched an ad campaign targeting a man they describe as “anti-Israel” and “pro-Iran.”

Leftists and anti-neocon right-wingers, on the other hand, are delighted.

“A much-needed declaration that some mild dissent on foreign policy orthodoxies and Israel is permitted,” says Glen Greenwald. “Exciting beyond measure,” agrees Scott McConnell in the American Conservative. Pat Buchanan is a fan, and even Michael Moore seems stoked.

On both sides, there is, of course, a tendency to overstate the importance of unorthodox cabinet picks like Hagel. Though the views of the nation’s new defense secretary may well be “left of Barack Obama,” in the words of Charles Krauthammer, in  practical terms, being to “the left” of the President could ultimately mean little more than his place on the cabinet seating chart. Foreign policy remains the ultimate prerogative of the White House, after all, and if the president — especially this president — decides there are going to be wars with Iran or invasions of Syria (or Mali), they’re probably going to happen.

If nothing else, however, the pick does give credence to the idea — previously spouted only by the sappiest of partisans — that Obama truly does take inspiration form President Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals” approach to cabinet governance. We can now say that entrance to the President’s inner circle is determined not merely by loyalty or conformity, but genuine competence and contrarianism.

Regardless of how much beltway orthodoxy Hagel actually winds up battling once in office, the mere fact of his nomination is a solid blow against politics-as-usual.

And for that it deserves praise.


  1. ficklewicklejick

    Hagel's not a moderate Republican. He's quite conservative, actually. He's just not a Neo-Con.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    TBH, he just doesn't care about social and economic issues. I met him once, he is foreign policy out and out.

  3. @Cristiona

    The Hagel pick was a sad joke and either a tin-eared attempt at a sop for the GOP are just a truly idiodic choice. He's a terrible choice politically, and an even worse one administratively.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    The problem with Hagel is he doesn't change foreign policy nor does he dictate anything new. We need an "overseer" kind of foreign policy, which I mentioned in another comic.

    Neocons want to bomb and Obama wants to say I'm sorry. Hagel is wishy washy on all of it. At least that is the perception. He kind of talks tough but then says some weird things here and there. And is constantly trying to get the US to negotiate without actually negotiating. Again at least this is the perception.

    IMHO, most of these Secs nominees and the President himself, lack both a vision and a process to carry them out. There is no broad scale vision and policy plans. Long ago are the days of John Foster Dulles and Kissinger. Now a days all we have are men and women who runs bureaucracies, which I guess would make these guys perfect then. They all just scream most Panetta and less Petraeus (affair aside).

    At least Hillary was a true work horse. She got the job done even though she didn't have room to be a broad scale visionary. I know being a visionary is up to the President. However, when you have Obama that lacks experience, it was thought he would have an "All Star Cabinet" that was going to advise him. Well, these guys aren't that. You need to have policies like "detente" and "brinksmanship." NOTE: I'm not saying you need policies AKIN to them but you need to have these STYLE of policies. Strong bold outlines that shape our foreign policy, whether you agree with it or not. Obama for whatever reason doesn't offer ideas like the "Domino Theory" or "Marshall Plan" or "containment". So we were expecting to rely on these big heavy hitters for them.

    However, Biden, Geithner, Holder, Napolitano, etc. all have had major chances to offer some big ideas that would shape our policies for years to come. All have dropped the ball. Hillary I think came the closest, maybe Gates, but still. Maybe it's because Obama has a very top down approach or his lack of clarity on these kind of issues. Either way we need someone who goes out there and owns up to the problems and helps the President shape a vision. If not, then at least a road map for our foreign policy.

  5. Rachel Bush

    Why do you think it is so wrong for the US to say that we are sorry? Do you really think we have done nothing to apologize for? Places where just one or two apologies might go a long way toward repairing relationships between the US and the citizens of countries where we overthrew democratically elected leaders in place of dictatorships? And people that have seriously called the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys turn around to ask what Obama has done to strengthen relationships with allies in the very next breath?

    Apology is not a sign of weakness. It's not like Obama has done it every single day, just in a handful of speeches, and it's generally the right thing to do. http://www.ehow.com/about_4677447_what-does-bible

  6. Jake_Ackers

    It's not what you say but how you say it. You can question our methods but never our motives. Obama apologizes for our motives, at least that's what the enemy and our allies get as the message. We have always done things for the right reasons, even if not the right way.

    Lke Zulu pointed out. He complains about the US bombing innocent women and children and goes and does the same thing. Then proceeds to apologize for it. We don't go around intentionally killing innocent people. You want to apologize for that? For the mistake? Fine. But why focus only on that, why not drive home the message we are there because of terrorism. It's not what he says, but rather how he says it.

  7. vihmavari

    Just curious, could you point out specific cases of Obama actually apologizing about US *motives*?

  8. Jake_Ackers

    Again I want to make clear. He didn't go around saying "OMG I'm sorry for killing your babies." It's how he said it, that gives the impression to our allies and our enemies that what we do is some how wrong. Instead of saying sorry for the ways. It's all about a narrative.

    I know the link is a bit biased but: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/06/

    Moreover, it made several points in the post. The Obama sorry part was just a comparison of the left and right. The Republicans want to just bomb and Obama just want to if not say I'm "sorry" then he wants to just "building bridges" method is being employed wrong. The US needs a HUGE foreign policy shift. Which he, nor the Republicans, nor any of these nominees offer. So please don't focus on the fact I said the "sorry" part but rather see it as part of a greater discussion.

  9. Rachel Bush

    Responding to several of these individual points:
    1. The apology was merited by the actions of previous American governments that were so anti-French that they banned French fries from the Congressional cafeteria in favor of "freedom fries" and other similar debacles. Do you think the general undercurrent of comments didn't create animosity best addressed with an apology?

    2. I saw this as mostly a reference to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_Iranian_coup_d&… without explicitly mentioning it. He says that America has acted as a colonial power. In the 20th century, instances where the US has been interpreted as acting as a colonial power are usually where the US has intervened to overthrow a democracy, where the country was going to nationalize a foreign industry and thus seen as susceptible to Soviet influence.

    Pragmatically, America also chooses its battles to fight for democracy only where America stands to benefit. While I think an apology to countries whose democratic systems got caught in America's Cold War cross-fire, in some form, is merited, the phrasing is off. "America was not born as a colonial power" implies that we still are when we aren't. So, I agree with you here.

    6 and 9. We waterboarded and insisted it wasn't torture. What's terrible is that he's apologizing for it while still doing it. What the Bush administration did was create a way to circumvent the Geneva convention for prisoners of war by calling them "enemy combatants" instead. What this does is encourage other countries to ignore this treaty knowing we don't abide by it, when they encounter our soldiers in combat.

    Yes, he said we sacrifice our values when we torture. Why wouldn't he? That's a Democratic belief, the belief of a lot of countries all over the world, that it's ineffective and no motive excuses it. So the government has to consider this as inherently true for the sake of global affairs. Supposing we had stopped, an apology would be merited to assure returning to the Geneva convnentions status quo.

    7. I don't think this was an apology at all. I think the US was just trying to encourage Turkey to admit that it committed genocide by admitting we've done our own things in our past we aren't proud of today. It was trying to create a common ground and comradery akin to "I quit smoking and you can too."

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Just the fact we are arguing about it makes my point. You are admitting he said sorry but arguing over if it is valid or not. That isn't my argument here. You all are focusing on the fact that I used the word "sorry." Fine I'll call it a "building bridges" strategy. Doesn't matter. At the end of the day, Hagel, Kerry, Obama are not the Dulles, Kissinger, Eisenhower, Trumans of this era. None of them have ever offered the detente, the containment, the "Truman Doctrines".

    Foreign policy is more about perception more than anything. I'm not arguing the validity of his strategy (whether it's right or not). Whether it is to build relationships or w/e else, he has done it. That is his methodology is a building bridges strategy. Call it building bridges, call it saying sorry. Call it w/e. Doesn't matter. That isn't my point. Whether it works or not, whether it is right or wrong, is another complete discussion.

    It's part of a greater narrative here. Both sides methodology have not moved the foreign policy needle as others have done in the past. There needs to be a shift not only in dialogue but in policy and the carrying out of those policies. Whether right or not is not the issue here. The strategies done by both sides is not the same as a Foster or Kissinger. It's not the grand strategies that have realigned our foreign policies in the past. Whether it is right or wrong what he did isn't my point here.

  11. Zulu

    Obama did more bombing in his first term than Bush did in his two-term presidency.

  12. Virgil

    A serious point however has been raised that Obama is trying to cut defense spending and boost domestic. In doing this he is countering the trend since Reagan when defense spending increased and domestic was cut. Hagel gives Obama effective cover in doing one half of what he wants to do, and arguably its necessary to cut defense in order to create a national healthcare system. (Look to the UK after 1945).

    Ironically, the tea-party may help him get away with this. For the most part the tea party seems to be comfortable cutting all spending…..including defense.

  13. Jake_Ackers

    Good point Virgil. However, I don't see it happening. The only way to increase domestic spending is to lower defense spending. As soon as you need to increase defense spending back up, and the US will, the domestic budget will take a hit or the US simply won't be able to.

    Only way possible is to have a complete change in foreign policy. A true new kind of change. Not a FDR to Truman but an Eisenhower like change. A complete rehaul from top to bottom of policy and military structure. Foreign policy and defense budget policy to guide the country for the next 30-40 or so years. Which considering the President's lack of experience and the nominees coming up, none seem to offer that.

    Even then, the first sign of threat or foreign entanglement whomever is the President will give in. Defense spending can always go up and down. We did it after WWII. Our greatest financial burden has not been WWII or the Cold War military spending under FDR and Reagan. Rather the domestic spending under FDR and LBJ.

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  16. lee thomas

    good post