Shadow Government

Hagel can ask tough questions. But can he answer them?

Last week's Senate hearing on Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon seems to have done a surprising amount of damage to Hagel's prospects. I say "surprising" because usually former Senators are accorded an extra measure of deference and latitude during confirmations by their erstwhile colleagues. And most observers had presumed that Hagel would have been prepared to make a more effective case for himself by assuaging critics and reassuring supporters.

Instead Hagel experienced one of the rougher confirmation days in the history of the Senate's "advice and consent." Part of the problem may stem from his lack of any political base of support. Most Republicans see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by denouncing his party while regularly supporting Democratic candidates. Most Democrats also see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by disavowing his past positions when politically expedient.  While the vast majority of Senate Democrats at this point seem likely to vote for Hagel's confirmation, they will do so more out of support for President Obama rather than any great enthusiasm for the nominee himself.

Hagel's critics have marshaled a troubling litany of his past statements and positions. Even in areas where Hagel should presumably have expertise, such as the defense budget or Middle East policy and history, a closer look shows some deficiencies, as Gary Schmitt and Mike Doran among others have demonstrated. Yet one of the most persuasive cases against Hagel is actually made by his supporters. Consider this sympathetic article by Bob Woodward a week ago. Based on Hagel's own recounting, Woodward describes how Hagel in 2009 met with President Obama and told the new president "We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don't control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they" -- the military and diplomats -- "tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."

Sounds like good advice, right?  Sure -- but only up to a limited point. 

Yes, asking questions and challenging assumptions is an important skill for a policy leader. It is also an essential skill for being a journalist (like Woodward) or a professor (as Hagel has been at Georgetown for the last few years). There are many policy lines and strategic assumptions in American national security policy that should be questioned. But merely asking questions is comparatively easy. It is a posture that can also be the intellectual refuge of the person who isn't sure what should actually be done.

More important skills for the role of an executive branch national security official are the ability to decide, to act, and to implement. This is one of the most essential differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch. As a Senator, and more recently as a professor, Hagel enjoyed a platform to ask lots of questions about American foreign policy. But as secretary of defense, he would have to start providing answers -- and making decisions. Running the Pentagon is an entirely different challenge than running a Senate hearing or a graduate school seminar.

Or consider this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker endorsing Hagel's nomination. Crocker is one of America's finest diplomats with an incomparable record of service, and unparalleled knowledge of foreign policy. His recommendations should always carry much weight. Yet in this case his argument for Hagel amounts to recounting a series of trips that Hagel took to several difficult countries, and noting in each case that Hagel "understood" the complexities of the situation. Absent is any evidence of any substantive policy accomplishments by Hagel -- such as legislation that Hagel might have authored or policies he might have shaped. Rather, in this account Hagel comes across more like a dutiful student than a seasoned statesman.

To be clear, the congressional responsibility of asking the right questions, and forcing the executive branch to answer them in public is an essential role. It is constitutionally ordained and in practical terms will lead to better policy. While the executive branch bears the brunt of responsibility for past American foreign policy failures (such as many aspects of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars), even a glance at that history reveals deficiencies in congressional oversight as well. And as I wrote just last week, Congress's national security role includes some policy creation and implementation responsibilities such as writing legislation and appropriating funding. I experienced this myself during several years of working as a congressional staff member, when Capitol Hill's scrutiny of the Clinton administration foreign policy revealed some deficient attention to international religious freedom and spurred the Congressional passage of legislation. But at the end of the day, it is still the executive branch that takes the lead on national security. It is not enough to ask hard questions. Executive decisions must be made and implemented, and the consequences of deciding on both action and inaction must be borne.

Perhaps the most telling verdict on Hagel's Senate hearing came, ironically, from a Democrat. Senator Claire McCaskill made the tart observation that "I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them ... That's one bad habit I think you get into when you've been in the Senate. You can dish it out, but sometimes it's a little more difficult to take it."

Hagel has proven he can ask tough questions about policy. By confirming him, as seems likely, the Senate will be saying he can also answer tough questions and make tough decisions. For the sake of national security in these difficult times, I hope they are right.

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Shadow Government

On foreign policy bipartisanship and Max Kampelman

In the latest installment of a continuing research project on partisan commitments and foreign policy views, some colleagues and I have just published some of our latest findings with that, er, other journal. Following up on last summer's survey of executive branch policymakers from both parties, we have now surveyed a broad group of Congressional staff members to explore the question: just how divided is Congress on foreign policy?

As Josh Busby, Jon Monten, Jordan Tama, and I describe here, the results may be somewhat surprising, especially given the prevailing headlines about Congressional acrimony and gridlock. Our survey instead found unanticipated levels of bipartisan agreement among Congressional staff of both chambers and both parties on issues such as the importance of the U.S. commitment to multilateral institutions like NATO, the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and to allies such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The survey also found high levels of agreement on broader principles such as preserving U.S. sovereignty, yet also affirming the importance of multilateral cooperation on national security priorities.

Of course some pronounced differences emerge as well on certain issues.  For example, Democratic staff really like the International Atomic Energy Association (over 75 percent view it favorably); Republican staff really don't (only 21 percent view it favorably).  Republican staff are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel; Democratic staff comparably less so.

Comparing this survey with the previous one of executive branch staff is also revealing.  As one of my co-authors Josh Busby describes over at The Duck of Minerva:

The two surveys reveal some interesting intra-party differences between the two branches. Republicans in the executive branch had a more favorable view than congressional Republicans of global economic institutions, such as the World Bank, the WTO, and the IMF, and were more likely to support the principle that abiding by unfavorable WTO rulings was in our long-term interest. Executive branch Republicans also had more favorable views of the U.S. relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, both groups of Republicans strongly supported the idea that trade, non-proliferation, and terrorism were important issues that could be addressed multilaterally.

Among Democrats, a significantly greater percentage of executive branch officials considered climate change to be a very important issue, but most Democrats in both branches said multilateral cooperation on climate change and every other issue that we asked about was important, and Democrats in Congress and the executive branch shared favorable views of most international institutions.

Full results of the comparison can be found here.

The topic of partisan divisions in foreign policy is also a fitting occasion to honor Ambassador Max Kampelman, who died on Friday at the age of 92, and whose career bears witness to the possibility of patriotic service to both parties. Will Tobey's eloquent tribute below sketches the arc of Kampelman's remarkable life. From pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II to staunch anticommunist and Cold Warrior, from committed Democrat and aide to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to senior Reagan administration official (while still a committed Democrat), and from prominent human rights advocate to nuclear weapons negotiator, Kampelman's life embodied the twentieth century itself. Notably, he was equally committed to and adept at human rights advocacy as he was at nuclear diplomacy. Such a policy combination might sound unusual amidst contemporary bureaucratic stovepipes, but in his mind both issues formed a comprehensive strategic vision for the confrontation with the Soviet Union.

I had the privilege of meeting Ambassador Kampelman only once, about a decade ago when I was on a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute. I had convened a panel discussion on religion and foreign policy; Ambassador Kampelman attended and offered some customarily thoughtful remarks. Later that week he wrote me a very gracious letter with his appreciation for the conference, and included some fascinating reflections on the connection between the theological origins of monotheism and universal human rights.

For an introduction to Kampelman's distinguished statesmanship and inimitable style, I commend to our readers his own reminiscences on working for President Reagan in this 2003 article in the Weekly Standard. His anecdotes on how Reagan combined human rights commitments with nuclear arms negotiations, and on Reagan's colorful relationship with Tip O'Neill are especially memorable.

A closing thought: Kampelman's bipartisanship was borne of principle. Because he shared common values with President Reagan on foreign policy, he was able to serve in the Reagan administration, even while holding to his own Democratic roots and no doubt maintaining numerous disagreements with Reagan on other areas of domestic and economic policy. In other words, bipartisanship should not be reduced to policy mush or personal opportunism.  We have two parties for a reason, and partisan disagreements can just as often be a source of accountability and vitality in a democracy as they can be a cause of malaise. In that context, bipartisanship represents members of both parties finding common policy ground based on common principles, and a shared commitment to our nation.

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