The Corner

Hagel: The Damage is Done

President Obama’s decision to nominate former senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense confirms and reinforces a series of unfortunate developments in both American foreign policy and domestic politics.

First and foremost, the Hagel nomination amounts to a green light for Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Sensible observers should already have known that Obama was unlikely to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet privately and publicly, a number of American policy hands continued to suspect that a surprise strike was possible or even likely, which means that prudent Iranian observers would have feared the same. Now the Hagel nomination very publicly sends the message that there will be no American strike. Even in the unlikely event that the nomination were to fail, the critical point about the president’s intentions has been made. No matter how many times President Obama tells Iran that “all options are on the table,” they’ll know he doesn’t mean it.

Hagel’s controversial remarks about Israel also make it likely that the confirmation battle will deepen American confusion about the significance of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Naturally, we should be greatly concerned about the implications of an Iranian bomb for Israel’s security. Yet bracketing the question of Israel, a nuclear Iran poses a direct and profound threat to America’s own interests. Constant discussion of Iran’s nuclear ambition in the context of the danger posed to Israel has obscured that critical point.

An Iranian bomb means nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East. There will be many more bombs in the hands of unstable and sometimes radical regimes with poor command-and-control mechanisms in place. With multiple nuclear devices, perhaps many from similar sources (like Pakistan), it will become tougher to trace bombs back to their country of origin. All this will greatly increase the likelihood that either completed nuclear bombs or nuclear material for a dirty bomb will be handed off to terrorists. Those weapons would as likely be used against the United States as against Israel.#more#

Iranian possession of nuclear weapons will also make it far riskier for America to take military action against threats to the world’s oil supply. Saddam Hussein always said that he ought to have waited until he had a bomb before invading Kuwait. With a bomb, Iran will find it easier to destabilize Gulf state oil producers, perhaps using Shiite minorities there as proxies. That could give Iran significant control over the flow of the world’s oil, and through it the world’s economy.

These should be matters of high concern to Americans, yet they are rarely mentioned. Since Israel understands the threat to its existence posed by an Iranian bomb and is willing to discuss preventative action, we’ve tended to assume that Israel is the only state directly threatened. The real problem is that American politicians have been reluctant to discuss the direct threat to the United States, because they understand how tired Americans are of military involvement in the Middle East.

This is the real weakness Republicans face going into a confirmation battle. We don’t have a clear foreign-policy alternative to present to the American people. The heavy emphasis on democratization hasn’t worked and can’t work, particularly in light of the outcome of the so-called Arab Spring. What’s needed is a policy that puts the threat of nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and the safety of the world’s oil supply at the forefront, while also drawing clear limits against interventions that do not directly uphold these goals, as for example, in Libya. Until Republicans craft and articulate such a policy, when the public is forced to choose between the Obama-Hagel view and a hawkish policy based on chimerical hopes of Arab cultural transformation, they will choose the Obama-Hagel view.

Undue optimism about the prospects of democratizing the Middle East has left the Republican party without a coherent foreign-policy alternative to present the American people. The absence of such an alternative played no small part in the election outcome in 2012.

Events in the coming years are likely to change all this. As the collapse of the Arab Spring sinks in, Iran develops a bomb, nuclear weapons proliferate throughout the Middle East, and the world’s oil supply is increasingly destabilized, a new Republican foreign-policy alternative will emerge. If we’re lucky, we may have one by 2016, and the Obama-Hagel foreign policy may by then be an albatross for the Democrats. Unfortunately, the price in security and safety that America will have paid for such a political reversal could be great indeed.


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