The Obama Nominations

by Victor Davis Hanson

Both the Hagel and Brennan nominations, unless there are new bombshells, will probably go through. But they both are disturbing for similar reasons.

So much has been written about the Hagel nomination that little more need be said other than a note concerning the president’s intentions. There are scores of old-guard Washington hands who could have served as well as or better than Hagel (who, let it be noted, had a heroic wartime military record, an impressive business career, and clear proof of executive expertise) without an iota of controversy. Almost every day, for better or worse, we will hear of yet another freshly uncovered Hagel quote, more newsworthy than the last.

His nomination suggests that Obama wanted to send two messages:

1) After the Susan Rice putdown, the president wishes to reestablish his gravitas and believes he can ram the outspoken Hagel through. And he probably can, although creating a trail of bruised feelings that may come back to haunt him in March.

2) He wishes, at last, to redefine the relationship with Israel to something akin to what it was in the 1970s — after a failed effort to do so in the first few months of his first term when he was worried about reelection. I think with a Hagel at Defense, there would be two pragmatic changes in our strategic defense relationship, given Hagel’s importance in matters purely military: We would opt for containment of a nuclear Iran, and not consider preemption under any circumstances, much less in loose concert with Israel; and there would deliberately be some diffidence expressed about our willingness to supply and resupply Israel in times of a crisis, especially should the latter have conducted itself in a way the administration determined ‘unhelpful’ or provocative.

Less need be said about the Brennan nomination. Like Hagel on paper he is, of course, qualified, being a long-career CIA officer well acquainted with the Middle East who was a key player after 9/11 in successfully defending the U.S. from further terrorist attacks. And like Hagel, he has said and done things that bring his otherwise strong resume into question, at least on matters of judgment. He seems to have needlessly been candid to a compliant press in high-fiving operational secrets concerning the bin Laden raid, and yet absolutely wrong about key details of the raid. And along with Tom Donilon may have been among the administration officials (cf. Robert Gates’ ‘shut the f*** up’) eager to divulge to pet New York Times reporters favorable takes on classified matters like the cyber war against Iran and the Predator targeting methodology.

#more#And after once working for the Bush administration — and being criticized by Obama supporters for elements of that tenure — Brennan in 2009 almost gratuitously about-faced. Given that the Left had opposed talk of nominating him as CIA director for his Bush-era association with controversial anti-terrorism protocols, with the zealotry of the convert, he soon gave a very different take on the Bush-Cheney protocols, at least before, to everyone’s surprise, Obama either embraced or expanded almost all of them.

Was there really a need before a mostly Muslim audience to play to the crowd by trashing what was accomplished in the two Bush terms (e.g., “Over the years the actions of our own government have at times perpetuated those attitudes: violations of the Patriot act, surveillance that has been excessive, policies perceived as profiling, over-inclusive no-fly lists subjecting law-abiding individuals to unnecessary searches and inconvenience”)? Brennan’s August 2009 speech on the preferable Obama approach to fighting terrorism was almost surreal in that it pointedly rejected the protocol of the previous administration, whose policies at the time Brennan had been either in full support of or silent about his reservations. Juxtapose his 2009 speech and his 2006 PBS interview (when out of office) and two quite different individuals seem to be talking.

In that sense, both Hagel and Brennan, like so many in Washington, show a depressing political fluidity: Hagel voted for a war against Saddam in 2003, was mostly silent when it went well, and then during the difficult and soon-to-be politically unpopular reconstruction suddenly declared, as did many, that it had been a war for oil all along (albeit one that he had voted for) and he thus now opposed it, as well as the surge (“the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”) — in the manner of Brennan’s opportunistic “the king is dead; long live the king” turn-about on anti-terrorism rhetoric as administrations changed. At any rate, Brennan, mutatis mutandis, waxed as effusively over Obama as he once had over Dick Cheney (e.g., “The vice president is somebody who has a tremendous intellect, has tremendous commitment to the security of this nation.”)

In short, the tragedy here is that, in terms of stability, the administration has come up short in its deliberate efforts to focus on nominees who recoiled at those whom they once embraced. Hagel would not be of the steady caliber of his predecessors Gates and Panetta, nor would Brennan be of the constant measure of a Panetta or Petraeus. And we may well learn how and why in the next four years.

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