Of the many troubling objections that have been raised against former senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, the most troubling by far is his position on the use of force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Several years ago, he told Bill Maher, “The way to deal with Iran is to engage Iran in a broader strategic context for all the Middle East. And it isn’t a military confrontation, but it has to factor in Iran, Syria, the Palestinian-Israeli situation, Iraq.” That’s a precise articulation of the Iranian government’s position in this impasse. Just last year Hagel told Foreign Policy magazine that there is “plenty of time” for a diplomatic solution on Iran. But his opposition to unilateral sanctions, combined with his opposition to a military confrontation, makes it quite plain that he favors a diplomatic strategy of no pressure at all.
Diplomacy without leverage — the Hagel way — was the hallmark of the pacifist Democrats who opposed President Reagan’s policy of rolling back the Soviet Union, a chorus which included then-senator Joseph Biden. Hagel imagines that the roots of his approach lie in the foreign policy of Truman and Eisenhower. That indicates a profound lack of self-awareness, a great capacity for self-delusion, and a good deal of ignorance.
The only way to dissuade Iran from proceeding with its nuclear ambitions is by making that course prohibitively costly — now. (Or five years ago, actually.) Not at some as-yet-undefined point in the future. True enough, sanctions have really started to bite, especially the unilateral ones which Hagel has opposed. But there has been no effort to scare Iran. On the contrary, we have telegraphed more or less clearly that force is off the table in the near term. That creates an incentive for Iran to proceed in its nuclear-weapons development. With Hagel in charge of the Pentagon, the Iranians will see the clearest green light yet.
When Hagel comes before the armed-services committee for his confirmation hearings, senators should ask him whether Iran can be deterred from acquiring nuclear weapons. His answer will be some pompously delivered pabulum about “strategic contexts” and “multilateral frameworks” and “still plenty of time for diplomacy,” etc. He should be forced to answer “yes” or “no.” If his answer is “yes,” he should be pressed to explain what military actions would be sufficient to back up the deterrent threat, should Iran decide to ignore it. If his answer is “no,” he should be asked whether his divergence from the president’s stated views is going to be a problem. The president has, after all, embraced a policy of deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons (or rather he thinks he has). Finally, I hope someone will ask Senator Hagel this question: If a nuclear bomb goes off in an American city, and forensics can’t tell us whether it came from North Korea, Pakistan, or Iran, how is the Defense Department prepared to respond?
Some have suggested that Senator Hagel’s views on Iran won’t matter much because foreign policy is conducted by the White House and State Department, especially in the case of Iran. One can refute this with a yawn. The secretary of defense, along with the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has primary responsibility for formulating military options and presenting them to the president. When the secretary of defense is somebody who comes up with no good military options on Iran, and 57 reasons why not to use force — as will clearly be the case with Hagel — that secretary of defense will not merely have an impact on Iran policy, he will ensure the failure of that policy.
Simply put, the appointment of Hagel to secretary of defense virtually guarantees that Iran will get nuclear weapons.
— Mario Loyola is a former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.