Shadow Government

What does Hagel's nomination mean? The fight over Iraq continues

President Obama is set to nominate Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and his team seems to relish the confirmation battle that will ensue. Obama is calculating that he will be able to rally enough wobbly Democrats and skeptical Republicans to overcome the strong opposition to Hagel. In the end, I think he is probably right: there is usually a strong presumption in favor of a president's nominee and Democrats will be loathe to hand the president another personnel defeat so soon after he was forced to back off nominating Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Lower ranking candidates are often stuck in limbo for long periods of time with senatorial holds, but it would be more unusual for one of the top cabinet positions to be blocked that way. Doubtless, Obama is calculating there will be lots of fireworks at the confirmation hearing, but eventually Hagel will get confirmed, albeit without the resounding and enthusiastic support that ushered in Obama's first two SecDef picks (Leon Panetta was confirmed unanimously and Robert Gates, received a 95-2 vote when nominated by President Bush. Quick trivia quiz: Who voted against Gates? Two Republicans, Sen. Jim Bunning and Sen. Rick Santorum, though Senators Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and Elizabeth Dole did not vote).  

My bet is Obama will win this fight, which raises the question, what will he have won? Based on the commentary surrounding the Hagel nomination issue, perhaps the answer is that Obama could win another round in the fight to stigmatize support for the Iraq war. I reached this conclusion after reading two thoughtful pieces, one pro-Hagel and one anti-Hagel. Bill Kristol registers a strong critique of Senator Hagel and raises an important question: beyond the evident appeal of rebuking Obama's critics, what is the case for Hagel? And Peter Beinart indirectly offers an intriguing answer: rebuking Obama's critics is sufficient case for Hagel.

The battle over Hagel is a battle over the meaning of Iraq. The pro-Hagel faction has a distinctive interpretation of what happened in Iraq. They believe that invading Iraq was a strategic blunder so egregiously stupid that it could only be foisted on the American public through a coercive and deliberately deceptive propaganda campaign. The wisest people were those who always opposed Iraq (read: Obama), but those who voted for the use of force in Iraq can be forgiven for succumbing to this folly only if they quickly became vocal critics of the war (read: Hagel, Clinton, and Biden). Once the original folly of invading Iraq had been committed, there was only one plausible outcome: rapid strategic defeat for the United States and equally rapid withdrawal. The critics appeared to want this outcome to be cemented during the Bush presidency, perhaps so as to indelibly mark who was to blame for the fiasco, hence they vigorously opposed Bush's surge at the time and argued instead that U.S. troops should withdraw under fire regardless of the consequences in Iraq. The success of the surge in reversing Iraq's strategic trajectory was an awkward complication, but this faction ultimately overcame it by arguing, against all the evidence, that the surge was irrelevant to any possible positive development in Iraq. Importantly, this interpretation absolves the Obama administration of all responsibility for anything bad that happens in Iraq, thus any sins of omission or commission that occurred in Obama's first term are waived away as utterly inconsequential.

Hagel personifies this interpretation of Iraq -- indeed, he went so far as to claim that the surge was "the most dangerous blunder in this country since Vietnam." Note that: not the invasion of Iraq, but the surge in Iraq, the effort to reverse the strategic trajectory.

The anti-Hagel faction, of course, has a different interpretation of what happened in Iraq. Views on the ultimate wisdom of the initial invasion of Iraq vary widely among this group, but they share two common features: that the decision was (1) well-debated (no coercion or deception) and (2) reasonable, meaning that given the limits of what was known and the associated uncertainties, a reasonable policymaker could conclude that resorting to military force was an acceptable option to replace the collapsing (and believed to be failing) sanctions/inspections regime. With hindsight, one could argue that the decision was a mistake, maybe even a blunder, but not in a way that discredited all of the strategic judgments that led up to it. And, importantly, not in a way that dismissed the importance of all of the strategic judgments that came after it. An important part of this interpretation of Iraq is the claim that, once launched, the best strategic course for the United States was to seek success -- to fight until it could leave behind an Iraq that could govern itself democratically, defend itself, and be a U.S. ally in the fight against violent extremists in the region. By 2006 Iraq was not on a trajectory to success, but the surge changed that. Thus, while the surge may not have compensated in some moral or political sense for all mistakes that went before, it was certainly the right and consequential choice given where the country was in 2007. Finally, this faction argues that the last four years have been consequential as well, and that Obama's choices have resulted in an Iraq that is far less conducive to American national security interests than what other choices would have produced.

The debate over the historical meaning of Iraq matters because it has such obvious implications for the analogous challenge with Iran. Many of the pro-Hagel supporters openly acknowledge that they hope Hagel's pick signals that the President is willing to abandon the military option in dealing with Iran, for much the same reasons that they argue the option was disastrous in Iraq. President Obama has not publicly connected those dots, but I expect he will be challenged to explain whether that interpretation makes sense in the days to come.

By the way, the conventional wisdom is that Obama's other national security pick -- John Brennan for CIA director -- will sail through confirmation. I do think he will be readily confirmed, but I would not be surprised if some Senators used the hearings to register growing concern about President Obama's counter-terrorism policies, especially drone strikes. The Obama administration's drone strike program is broadly popular in the United States, but not among the left and libertarian-right flanks. Brennan is the face of that program -- to the extent that anyone is the face of a program operating so much in the shadows -- and so this will be the single best opportunity critics will have to register their concerns. (The program is under much greater pressure abroad, and I expect the President to have to spend considerable political capital abroad if he wants to maintain it at the level he set in the first term.)

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Five premises of a bold Republican foreign policy

Originally published as part of a roundtable discussion on an article by Danielle Pletka about the future of the Republican party.

I agree with the vast majority of what Danielle Pletka writes in "Think Again: The Republican Party." As a result, rather than joining the post mortem of last year's election, I'm going to focus my attention on the agenda for the future.

Republican national security strategy has traditionally been characterized by a sober view of the international environment and strong support for national defense. In common with other conservatives, most Republicans believe that things could -- and quite possibly will -- be worse. But Republicans have been at their best when they have coupled wariness of potential foes with an abiding confidence in America and its values.

An emphasis on power and values is needed now as much as ever. In recent years, a new orthodoxy has taken hold among policy elites, including more than a few Republicans. That view argues that with the war in Iraq over and that in Afghanistan winding down, the United States should embrace a narrower (or, more politely, a more "selective") conception of its role in the world. Accordingly, the United States can afford to make major cuts in defense spending. Indeed, the new orthodoxy holds that resources spent on defense can be better -- and more productively -- spent elsewhere: That is, the United States should move from practicing nation-building abroad to building the nation at home.

This view, which often bleeds over into declinism, deserves to be challenged. A national security strategy built upon traditional tenets of the Republican foreign policy offers a potent counterpoint to the new orthodoxy. Five premises are central to such a policy.

First, the United States is an exceptional nation. The new orthodoxy errs in downplaying America's strengths. These include our considerable (though neglected and decreasing) advantages in sea and air power, our alliances with some of the world's most prosperous democracies, and our considerable domestic energy reserves. It also sells America short by downplaying the fact that for centuries the United States has been a magnet for the world's best and brightest. The United States is truly exceptional in that it is one of only a handful of countries (with Australia, Canada, and Israel) that can attract talented individuals from across the world and make them productive, successful members of our society within the span of years. Republicans could make immigration a winning issue by backing measures to lower the barriers to skilled, educated workers becoming American citizens. Imagine, for example, if every graduate professional degree in the basic and applied sciences came with a green card attached.

The new orthodoxy also sells America short by downplaying the power of American values. Support for democracy abroad is in America's strategic interest. Failing to foster democracy, or abandoning new democracies, is hardly a recipe for a safer, more secure world.

Second, the United States has an exceptional role to play in the world. Global leadership is a choice. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned shortly before leaving office, "The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people -- accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades - want their country to play in the world." However, if the United States chooses not to exercise its leadership, the best we will get is chaos; the worst we will get is leadership by those who do not share our values. The United States today does not have the luxury of Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- there is no like-minded great power to pass the baton to. Isolationists (or, more politely, "offshore balancers") assume miracles in arguing that if the United States pulls back, others will preserve a balance of power favorable to the United States.

Third, the world continues to be a dangerous place. America may be war-weary, but its competitors are not. If we do not look after our own interests, we cannot expect others to do so for us. Although some parts of the world (Europe, for example) are clearly safer and more secure than in decades past, other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Asia, are less secure. Al Qaeda is busy setting up safe havens on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa. Iran continues its quest for nuclear weapons, and North Korea is advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities.  Of particular concern is China's ongoing military modernization, a portion of which is aimed at coercing U.S. allies and denying the United States access to the Western Pacific. Moreover, the United States appears to have underestimated the scope and pace of China's fielding of new weapons, including those designed to counter U.S. power-projection forces. Over the past decade the weapons most needed to respond to such developments have received short shrift in the Pentagon budget. As a result, the United States faces an increasingly unfavorable military balance in the Western Pacific.

Fourth, our investment in national defense is a net benefit, not a cost.  In historical terms, the United States spends relatively little on defense. We have also derived a lot from that investment. The new orthodoxy has the relationship between economic and national security wrong. It is not a case of a tradeoff between nation building at home and abroad. Rather, prosperity at home depends upon American engagement abroad.

Defense spending provides tangible benefits to the American people both internationally and domestically. Internationally, American military dominance has benefited the United States and the world as a whole. The fact that the U.S. Navy has commanded the maritime commons has allowed trade to flow freely and reliably, spurring globalization and lifting millions out of poverty. It is unclear whether the stability that American military dominance has yielded would continue in its absence. As Joseph S. Nye, Jr. famously noted, security is like oxygen: You don't notice it until it begins to run out.

Domestically, defense does more to stimulate the U.S. economy than most things the U.S. government spends money on. The defense budget creates jobs and spurs the development of new technology. It is hard to think of other categories of government expenditure that do as much to stimulate economic growth.

Although the United States has spent considerable sums on defense, modernization has lagged. As a result, U.S. Air Force aircraft are on average more than 23 years old, the oldest in Air Force history, and are getting older. Many transport aircraft and aerial refueling tankers are more than 40 years old, and some may be as old as 70-80 years before they retire. The U.S. Navy is smaller now than it was before the United States entered World War I, and is getting smaller. Only full-scale recapitalization will reverse this trend.

Fifth, we need to show confidence in America. Republicans are right to be concerned about foreign threats, but they need to be alive to opportunities as well. Ronald Reagan was effective not only because he took the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but also because he was bullish on America -- much more so than the so-called "realists" of his day.

There is much that the United States can do today to harness its enduring strengths to meet today's threats. A recently published volume that I edited provides some ideas about how the United States can compete more effectively with China, but such an approach can also be adapted to meeting many of the other challenges we face.

A strategy based upon these tenets may run against the current political tide, but draws upon a deep tradition of American foreign policy. It is also the right strategy for the United States to preserve its historical role in the world.

Thomas G. Mahnken is a visiting scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.