It appears as though the Editors of National Review Online — not to mention yours truly — were too hasty in concluding last month that “Chuck Hagel is definitively not the man who should be the next secretary of defense. And considering the problems it will create for the Obama administration should they nominate him, we trust he won’t be.”
Because it now seems clear that Barack Obama will get Chuck Hagel as his next secretary of defense. It’s true that a number of Senate Republicans — including Senators McCain, Graham, Cornyn, Wicker, Vitter, and Cruz — have said they will oppose Hagel, while a number of Democrats, most conspicuously No. 3 Dem Chuck Schumer, have been noncommittal. But no Democrats have said outright they will defy their president on such an important nomination, and Majority Leader Harry Reid has endorsed the nominee, something he would not have done without knowing the temperature of his caucus. The external opposition has been both ardent and effective in securing headlines, but it is relatively narrow in scope. Even the high-firepower group AIPAC — which many thought might lead the charge against Hagel over his views on Israel — has decided to sit this one out.
Things could still change, of course. Confirmation hearings could bring new information to light. Hagel could damage himself in testimony. Or a unified Republican caucus could mount a filibuster. The wild card in the latter option is whether Hagel’s nomination process will occur under a new framework for limiting filibusters that could come out of negotiations between Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The explicit and implicit promises made under such an agreement could determine the feasibility of such a maneuver.
But barring the unexpected, Hagel will succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. And that could prove to be President Obama’s most significant appointment to date.
Why? Consider what Hagel’s nomination signifies. Unlike his predecessor, who called the defense cuts built into the sequester “disastrous,” Hagel thinks they’re A-OK. And that’s precisely why he’s the president’s man. As David Brooks put it, Hagel has been nominated “to supervise the beginning of [a] generation-long process of defense cutbacks,” necessitated both by the president’s ambivalence about American global hegemony and by his preference for butter over guns in our impending debt and entitlement reckonings. Hagel is also functionally neutral in the Arab–Israeli conflict, an avowed opponent of military intervention in Iran, and (after his rebirth as an Iraq War skeptic) a maximally circumspect foreign-policy “realist” who would be more than content to oversee a net U.S. withdrawal from global hotspots (including, but not limited to, Af-Pak).
This constellation of foreign-policy views is not too different from that of candidate Obama, circa 2007, 2008, or even 2009. That such views are nonetheless leftward of the actual policies that have emerged from the Obama administration may sound odd, but in fact reflects how outside the foreign-policy mainstream those views were and to a certain extent still are. Even if the military-industrial complex isn’t the evil conspiracy of caricature, it is nevertheless real, and governed by dynamics that cut across electoral cycles. This is why the civil servants and contractors who populate the foreign-policy and defense bureaucracies, along with their symbiotic appropriators in Congress, often overwhelm the wide-eyed political promises of newly elected executives and why presidents are often more hawkish than they had been as candidates. This all might be chalked up to mere inertia; but there’s also, and more importantly, a bipartisan preponderance of policymakers and policy-influencers — from think tankers to congressmen — who are more bullish on the use of American power, and more dispositionally pro-Israel than is the president.
This has made it difficult for President Obama to actualize candidate Obama’s foreign policy, and explains why he has not been able to sever himself more cleanly from the Bush era. Installing Hagel gives him a powerful ally in this fight, and four years to maneuver without the political massaging (i.e., timely pivoting toward pro-Israel groups) necessitated by a reelection campaign. That Hagel is nominally a Republican, and thus can coat the policies in a patina of bipartisanship, doesn’t hurt either.
What other nominee has more materially aided the president in effecting his vision than Hagel could? To be sure, there have been plenty of appointees who are to the left of Hagel and arguably more in line ideologically with the amorphous collection of shifting postures and extrinsically constrained positions that we call the president’s agenda. But have any of them had the actual impact Hagel could, if everything proceeds according to plan?
The obvious name here is Eric Holder. But any hopes that Holder would prove a transformative attorney general have surely been dashed. He was thwarted first and most definitively in precisely those areas where Obama’s foreign-policy constraints have intersected with DoJ policy: questions of status and jurisdiction related to the prosecution of the War on Terror. What little change he has been able to effect — in concert with the Department of Homeland Security — on selective enforcement of immigration laws are largely delimited by the powers of executive order, and will last only as long as Democratic control of the executive. And any minor victories for progressive causes achieved under his watch — say, the Pigford settlement and a more activist civil-rights division — have been offset by the persistent hectoring of Darrell Issa and the likes of “Fast and Furious.”
What about Kathleen Sebelius? The Affordable Care Act is surely the signature achievement of the Obama administration and the closest the president has come to the transformation of Washington he long ago promised. The structure of that bill gives the HHS secretary broad powers to shape the national health-insurance market. But has the person of Kathleen Sebelius made much of a difference? Is she any more able an administrator of this piece of the welfare state than a dozen others might have been? Do her views on the scope and role of her department distinguish her from her immediate predecessors, and from the relevant bureaucratic and policymaking centers of mass, in the way that Hagel’s views distinguish him?
Much the same could be said about President Obama’s two appointees to the Supreme Court, associate justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Both are young, activist, and liberal, and could well prove to be decisive presences on the Court at some point beyond the horizon. But Sotomayor sits in a seat that was David Souter’s before her, and William Brennan’s before that. Kagan sits in John Paul Stevens’s seat, and William O. Douglas’s. Neither appointment tipped the Court or made the world hew more closely to Obama’s vision.
Who else is there? Elizabeth Warren and Van Jones are progressive heroes, but both were minor functionaries in the Obama administration, whose potential significance died on the vine, again thanks to the president’s being outmaneuvered by his opponents. In fact, the fates of Warren and Jones, like the fate of Holder, suggest that to say Hagel would be Obama’s most momentous nominee is not to say much. That the bar is set fairly low. That President Obama has been more or less unsuccessful in effecting his vision.
That may well be true. But Hagel’s nomination is interesting because it’s probably not the kind of move Obama could have or would have made in his first term. He retained Republican Bob Gates and nominated Leon Panetta, arguably the Washington Democrat best loved by Washington Republicans, as secretaries of defense. He muzzled Holder and distanced himself from him. He let Jones go. He stashed Warren in a “special assistant” position and surrendered on her nomination to the CFPB without firing a shot. But in the face of lukewarm support in his own party and a determined opposition from outside groups, he fights for Hagel, who will occupy a position more constitutionally and structurally central to the course of events than those others. If this portends that, when and if this nominee is confirmed, Obama will give Hagel a mandate to be Hagel, the president’s second-term defense policy could look a lot more like Obama being Obama.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.