Shadow Government

The Hagel hearings and the Iran use of force question (updated)

Is it possible that the debate and vote on Senator Hagel's confirmation for secretary of defense will be the closest the Senate comes to a debate and vote on the use of force in Iran?  As the administration showed on Libya, President Obama believes he can use military force without a prior congressional vote. The administration would be very wary about asking for something it is not absolutely certain it could get, and it would have to be very uncertain of winning such an "authorization to use military force in Iran" vote. Accordingly, it is likely that, if it ever came to it, the Obama administration might believe it must use military force against Iran's nuclear program without the kind of lengthy and contentious congressional debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq war and the 1991 Iraq war.

If my speculations are correct thus far -- a big if, I realize -- then a further, ironic speculation may also be correct: a vote for Hagel may be a vote against the use of force in Iran.

Let's stipulate up front that hawks and doves alike would prefer a negotiated solution with Iran in which Iran verifiably abandoned its nuclear ambitions. The debate between hawks and doves is not a debate between those who think the use of force would be swell and those who know it would not be. It is rather a debate between hawks who think that the "unswell" military option is preferable to learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and/or accepting a hitherto unacceptable negotiated deal that could not be prevented from devolving into "learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapons") and doves who think that it is preferable to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon than to resort to force.    

Officially, the Obama administration's policy is, by this metric, hawkish. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.

Hawks and doves differ on one further question: why haven't we been able to get a negotiated solution with Iran thus far? Doves say the reason is that the United States has hitherto botched diplomacy by rejecting legitimate Iranian overtures, failing to adequately negotiate face-to-face, having too many sticks and not enough carrots in the mix, and over-relying on unilateral sanctions; more creative diplomacy from the United States should be able to open up an acceptable deal. Hawks say the reason is that hitherto Iran has not experienced enough pain to be willing to concede on key issues and so the key is to ratchet up the coercive element of coercive diplomacy (whilst keeping the diplomatic element alive as well) until Iran makes the requisite concessions.

Officially, the Obama 2008 campaign was dovish by this metric but the Administration has moved towards the hawkish pole over the past several years. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.

If you were President Obama and you were in fact still hawkish -- i.e. you believed you might need to use military force -- why would you nominate the dovish Hagel?

One possibility -- call it the "Nixon to China" possibility -- is that a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in Congress, in the Pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it (which, I am sure, Obama devoutly hopes it never will). Likewise, only a dove like Hagel could convince skeptics that the Obama administration has done everything it can on the negotiations front and that no further U.S. concessions are warranted. That might be Obama's calculation, but this would be a grave risk to take. Senator Hagel earned his prominence by being an iconoclast, by breaking with his president, by sticking to his anti-interventionist instincts even when it might have seemed disloyal to do so.  Such a maverick would be more likely to break with the hawkish Obama when push came to shove than to blot his military copybook by supporting military action on Iran. I can't rule it out, but I think the "Nixon to China" interpretation is the wrong one.

A more likely possibility is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says. That is, I think it is possible that when push comes to shove President Obama may believe it would be preferable to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (or a bad deal that was tantamount to that) than to use military force. He may also believe that the administration has migrated as far to the hawkish pole on the question of how to structure negotiations with Iran as is wise, and that it is time to try more dovish approaches to negotiations. An Obama that is a dove-in-hawk's-feathers would find a Secretary Hagel fully in harmony with his views.

There is a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the foregoing, in part because Sen. Hagel has not been pinned down on his current views on Iran and the crucial question about which is worse, living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or resorting to force. I expect that to be one of the main foci of the confirmation hearings. And I expect the debate those questions and answers engender to be one of the liveliest debates the political establishment has had to date on the Iran issue.

Which means that Hagel's confirmation hearings and vote may be something of a proxy for congressional action on the use of force on Iran.

Update: Someone much more knowledgeable about the region than I am pointed out another irony about the Hagel nomination. If the hawks are correct both about Sen. Hagel's views and about what hinders negotiations with Iran, then the appointment of Hagel, on the margins, potentially increases the likelihood of the outcome the doves profess most to despise: an Israeli preventive strike on Iran. Here is how the logic plays out: If the hawks are right, the appointment of Hagel undermines the use of force threat, which both undermines negotiations with Iran and undermines Israeli confidence that it can trust the United States to, in Obama's words, "have its back."  Failing negotiations, coupled with growing Israeli doubts, intensifies pressure on Israeli leaders to take matters into their own hands, with all of the predictable undesirable consequences that will ensue. Irony of ironies, such Israeli action might be taken to confirm Hagel's critique of Israel, the same critique that some supporters say justifies his confirmation and others say justifies voting against him. Secretary Hagel, my friend suggests, might be a self-fulfilling prophet.

There are too many hypotheticals piled upon hypotheticals to bet the farm on this chain of logic. For one thing, a Secretary Hagel would doubtless work tirelessly to head off such an Israeli preventive strike and the administration may well succeed in preventing Israeli action even if they do not succeed in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, of course, the hawks might be wrong about Hagel's views or the likely consequences of those views for coercive diplomacy. But if Hagel is as wise and prudent as his supporters claim, it would probably serve him well to think through "what-ifs" like these and to clarify his views in the hearings accordingly.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Patience, not panic, on Israeli-Palestinian peace

It has become conventional wisdom in the United States and Europe that Israeli politics is shifting rightward. This in turn fuels a view that only tough love from Washington and European capitals -- in the form of a dictated peace plan or other such ultimatum -- can salvage any hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and ultimately secure Israel's own survival. Both the analysis and policy advice are flawed, and if heeded by the Obama administration would further undermine prospects for peace and security in the Middle East.

It is incontrovertible that the list chosen by Likud voters in their recent primary -- which includes hardliners such as Moshe Feiglin -- represents a sharp move to the right for the party. It is also correct that a recent poll by Israel's Dahaf Institute indicates that the Jewish Home-National Union party, which is to Likud's right, stands to more than double its representation in the Knesset, taking seats from Likud and its electoral partner, the secular-right Israel Beitenu party.

What is noted less often, however, is that left-wing parties have also gained. The same poll shows gains not just for the Labor party, but for the far-left Meretz party as well as social-justice-focused Yesh Atid (which did not previously exist), as well as for Tzipi Livni's "Movement" party. The losers are the Likud-Israel Beitenu coalition, projected to lose nine seats, and the centrist parties -- Kadima, which had twenty-one seats but will cease to exist, and Ehud Barak's "Independence" party, which will not field candidates with his retirement from the Knesset.

Despite this shifting within both the left and the right, the polls indicate an absence of movement between the two poles. The result, rather startlingly, is that despite the churn, the right-left balance is forecast to remain precisely as it currently stands. The data projects not a more right-wing Knesset, but a more polarized one. It also projects a weaker position for Prime Minister Netanyahu in coalition politics, which could well mean a more right-wing government than that he currently heads, though -- depending on what deals he is able to cut -- this is hardly a foregone conclusion.

More important for U.S. policymakers is what such election results would reveal about Israeli voters. Analysts who fret that the Israeli election will diminish prospects for peace have confused cause and effect. Heightened security worries sparked by Iran and the upheaval in the Arab world, compounded by fading hopes for peace with the Palestinians after four years of backsliding in the peace process, have fueled the electoral shifts that will be manifest in the Jan. 22 results.

A separate Dahaf poll from December 2012 indicates that Israelis increasingly believe that concessions will not bring real peace. Eighty-three percent did not believe that even a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines would bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and seventy-five percent felt that the Palestinian Authority could not be relied upon to fulfill its obligations. This figure is up from sixty-four percent just a year ago, a sign of how the PA's unilateralism at the United Nations has shaken Israeli confidence in its negotiating counterpart.

This pessimism about peace has undoubtedly fueled a view that "defensible borders," not a peace agreement, is the surest route to actually achieving peace. Sixty-one percent of Israelis express that view, compared to forty-nine percent who did so in 2005. It is also surely deepened by growing anxiety about developments in the Arab world -- forty-one percent of Israelis said these made peace with the Palestinians less likely, up from thirty-two percent just one year ago. Israelis are also fixated on the threat posed by Iran -- fifty-three percent support an Israeli attack on Iran, even though just twenty-one percent believe that such an attack will succeed in eliminating an Iranian nuclear threat. 

It is this deep and abiding anxiety over security which drives voters to right-wing parties, whose supporters tend to identify security policy as their number-one concern. Those voters who support leftist parties do not tend to do so because they also prioritize security but believe the left has a better approach to achieving it; they do so because they overwhelmingly identify economic and social issues, rather than security, as their top priority.

Buried in all of this data is hope for the United States. The political polarization in Israel does not necessarily indicate, as casual analysis has sometimes suggested, polarization over security issues. If anything, the Israeli public is a lot like the American public -- quite concerned about the security challenges emanating from the Middle East, but unsure what to do about them. They are also pragmatic, however, and clearly desire peace. The Dahaf poll shows an even split on dismantling settlements outside the major blocs, and clear support for a restrained Israeli response to the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN.  And other polls continue to show strong support for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- despite despair that one will ever be achieved.

This deep -- if flickering -- desire for peace is an opportunity for the Obama administration, and the data also point to a policy path for seizing it. That path must begin with a return to basics.  The U.S. must first restore the health of the U.S.-Israel alliance. The Dahaf poll suggests that only thirty-nine percent of Israelis believe the United States can be counted upon to support Israel.

Washington must also convince Israelis that it is determined to tackle the threats which so preoccupy both our populations, from the chaos in Syria to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Right now, only thirty-nine percent of Israelis believe that they can rely upon the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Finally, the U.S. must seek to restore some measure of faith between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. This will require small steps focused on issues where joint Israeli-Palestinian gains are possible, rather than the grand gestures to which American and European officials have sometimes succumbed in the past. The collapse of confidence between the two sides began with the December 2008 Gaza war, but was compounded by American diplomatic errors, such as the Obama administration's focus on a total settlement freeze. Settlements are a deeply difficult issue, but not the obstacle to negotiations they have lately been made out to be. It has been largely forgotten that the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 was immediately followed by a crisis attending the announcement of construction in Har Homa. That crisis was overcome, and the negotiations proceeded a few weeks later.

These three elements -- the U.S.-Israel alliance, U.S. leadership in the region, and a certain faith in one another between the two sides -- constitute the pillars upon which any successful peace process must rest. As he approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his second term, President Obama must avoid desperation in either of its primary modes -- hail-Mary peace plans or glum inaction. It is never a bad time to push for peace; but making progress will require patient preparation, followed by consistent, unflinching, and unglamorous work.

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