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