Hagel: What Difference Will He Make?

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

The Secretary of Defense has dual responsibilities: security policy-maker, and manager of a vast organization. The two obviously intersect -- but each has its own dynamics and its own politics. Saliency of the issues at the top of the agenda also can vary. Chuck Hagel will find himself in the position of facing major questions both in regard to likely budgetary restrictions that directly affect basic force structures, and in regard to our equivocal attitude toward extrication from Afghanistan and confrontation with Iran -- among other Middle East crises. Unenviable in certain respects, the timing opens opportunities to shape American strategy now and in the longer term. The intellectual doldrums stultifying American foreign policy create incentive to take the initiative; they at the same time resist any deviation from the inertial course.

The policy questions are most compelling even though the possibility of mandatory Pentagon spending cuts creates a sense of time urgency. On Afghanistan, the specific pending decision is what level and kinds of residual forces Washington should aim to keep there after the formal conclusion of the counter-insurgency effort at the end of 2014. This is not a technical issue best left to the generals. For the answer depends critically on defining what the United States' objective there is after twelve years of struggle. So stated, the issue trails a string of slippery questions: what envisaged role for the Taliban and their associates would we deem acceptable and is achievable?; how realistic is the greatly expanded role Afghan security forces that we have set as the sine qua non for a tolerable measure of stability?; can we continue planned strikes against Taliban leaders indefinitely while simultaneously trying to enlist them in a process of reconciliation with the Karzai government?

Nothing coming out of the White House suggests that the administration has made up its mind on these matters -- or even framed the questions. As a result, we are floundering our way out of Afghanistan uncertain as the exact terms of retrenchment and uncertain as to how we might try to fit the pieces of the three dimensional Afghan puzzle together. Here is where Hagel can make an invaluable contribution. As a long time skeptic of our rash, poorly thought through interventions, he has neither an intellectual stake nor a career stake in playing the game of make-believe about our failures. That means he can own up to the fact that we have fallen short of our audacious goal without sugar coating the present or casting the future in a rosy light. This sort of honesty is crucial if we are to make a graceful exit in full appreciation of the limits on our future influence in Afghanistan -- whatever the composition of the military force we hope the Afghans will permit us to leave behind.

The meeting last week between presidents Obama and Karzai underscored the dilemma for each without answering the cardinal question: what now is the point of the exercise? There is reason for cynicism. For the White House, the answer seems to be leaving with sufficient ambiguity as to ends, means and likely outcomes so that reality can be spun whatever transpires. For the Pentagon and CIA, it is to perpetuate the world-wide "war on terror" as presently conducted, and also to avoid being stigmatized for having failed. For the country's political class, it is to perpetuate the myth that we are still masters of the planet whose mistakes are always limited and never fatal to national interests.

Hagel exhibits a rare degree of honesty that militates against such obscurantism. He understands the principle of sunk costs, unlike Leon Panetta who declared last week: "We have poured a lot of blood and treasure into this war, We have made a lot of progress as a result of sacrifice by our people, and we're not gonna walk backward." He does not see reality as malleable to the ministrations of image makers nor -- more important -- does he overlook the nefarious future effects of sweeping under the rug the painful consequences of our misreading the world and ourselves. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, we are trapped in a situation where we cannot succeed by any reasonable standard (much less by reference to our exalted self image) but cannot face squarely the reasons why. Operating without accountability political or intellectual, we spare ourselves self scrutiny but pay heavily in the repetition of miscalculations and self contradictory policies. Can Hagel be expected to rectify all this? Or even compensate for it? Of course not. He does at least have the ingredients to inflect the process by which Obama, his administration, and the country could escape the virtual realities in which they have been living.

Iran is the other big issue Washington is grappling with. What the United States does or does not do about Iran's nuclear activities will have profound repercussions across the region. In addition, this is a highly neuralgic issue that resonates powerfully in American domestic politics. This last feature of the situation has militated toward an American hard line that is faithfully followed by the American foreign policy community with near unanimity. Wide consensus has stifled sober discussion of the premises built into the official interpretation of the situation and the logical alternatives for dealing with it.

The United States' dilemma is that it has boxed itself into a corner. It has declared the status quo intolerable yet has pretty much exhausted its coercive ammunition in trying to twist Tehran's arm to meet Washington's demands as to the disposition of its nuclear program. Draconian economic sanctions have been unavailing. The military option carries with it huge risks of dangerous consequences, direct and indirect, and offers no assurance of long-term success.

Yet, President Obama adheres to the core premise that the Iran government is hell bent on acquiring nuclear weapons despite his own intelligence agencies concluding otherwise. So, the President calmly states that there is no alternative to ratcheting up the pressure -- with war in full view on the table -- even though broadly cast talks on Iranian security concerns as well as ours never have been considered by Washington. For a brief moment right after the election, rumors circulated that the newly reelected president might be prepared to consider comprehensive talks with the IRI whose agenda would extend beyond the nuclear question. Thoughts of such an initiative quickly evaporated -- whether or not they ever received a serious review. The White House seems to be hoping for some deus ex machine that will lift it out of its self created predicament.

This is the sensitive moment when Chuck Hagel arrives at the helm of the Pentagon. There are clues as to his thinking as revealed in a series of public statements. He does share the orthodox view that "the U.S. national security would be seriously threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran..." Sept. 28, 2012 in a co-authored op-ed for The Washington Post.

But he also has warned that "You cannot push the Iranians into a corner where they can't get out...You've got to find some quiet ways -- and you don't do this in the press or by giving speeches -- to give them a couple of face saving ways out of this thing so they get something out of this, too...I don't think that we are necessarily locked into one of two options. And that's the way it's presented. We are great in this country and in our politics of responding to false choices; we love false choices." March 9, 2012 in an interview with Al-Monitor.

Most significant, Hagel has called upon,

"The United States to open a new strategic direction in U.S.-Iran relations by seeking direct, comprehensive and unconditional talks with the government of Iran, including opening a U.S. Interest Section in Tehran. We must avoid backing ourselves into a military conflict with Iran. That need not happen, but it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.... These talks should have no preconditions." June 26, 2008 to the The Brookings Institution.

He went on to say: "Our refusal to recognize Iran's influence does not decrease its influence, but rather increases it. Engagement creates dialogue and opportunities to identify common interests, as well as make clear disagreements. Diplomacy is not weakness- it can be...recall Munich in 1938- but rather diplomacy is an essential tool in world affairs using it where possible to ratchet down the pressure of conflict and increase the leverage of strength."

This is a heretical view in Washington circles. No one in the administration or close to it has been this forthright. It is, however, the prevailing view of most who have personal experience of Iran or who have been schooled in its ways. In a nutshell, the choice on Iran is this. Is the challenge to devise tactics for bringing to heal a rogue, hostile regime? or are we assessing what can be done to avoid a cataclysmic war by reaching agreement on terms that satisfy our reasonable concerns and Iran's legitimate security concerns, too? The evidence is that Hagel opts for the latter formulation.

Is he in a position to have that perspective prevail? What happens next then will depend on Barack Obama. For there is little expectation that Hagel will find many allies within the administration. Secretary of State John Kerry will lighten the touch of what has been heavy-handed American foreign policy while opposing impulsive actions. However, he gives no signs of deviating from the course bearings that have been guiding the nation's foreign policy. John Brennan at the CIA is a true believer in the 'war on terror" writ large who will be as gung-ho about rooting out all manner of Islamist threats to the United States as he was as White House terrorism chief. Tom Donilon as National Security Adviser acts as heavy ballast on the ship of state. Joe Biden prefers a minimal commitment in Afghanistan while an unwavering staunch hawk on Iran.

We soon will know whether Barack Obama avails himself of this opportunity to recast his policy toward Iran and to reorient our foreign policy in the region.

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