Obama’s war veterans

Print edition : February 08, 2013

President Barack Obama in the White House on January 7 where he announced Chuck Hagel (right) as the new Defence Secretary. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

John Kerry, Obama's choice for the next Secretary of State. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Demonstrations against the U.S. and Israel outside the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 2, 2012. Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP

Tents pitched by Palestinians in the 'outpost ' of Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun) near Jerusalem, on January 11, 2013, to protest against Israeli plans to build a Jewish settlement. Photo: Majdi Mohammed/AP

ON MONDAY, JANUARY 7, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA inaugurated what many observers hoped might be a potential new direction for his administration’s foreign policy. He nominated Nebraska Republican Charles “Chuck” Hagel as the new Defence Secretary to join a team that might include the nominated Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry as the new Secretary of State. Both Hagel and Kerry are veterans of the Vietnam War, with Hagel earning two purple hearts as an enlisted soldier and Kerry two purple hearts for his service on the Swift boats. Kerry returned to the United States as a significant voice against the war in the group Vietnam Veterans against the War. In 1971, Kerry made his most important statement about U.S. conduct in the war: “I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare, all of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this is ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law… are war criminals.” Hagel did nothing of this kind. His own reconsideration of the use of war would have to wait until the Iraq War of 2003. Both Kerry and Hagel voted to allow the Bush administration to go to war against Iraq, and then both regretted their votes. Hagel went further. He compared Iraq to Vietnam and defended the right to criticise the war and its authors. “To question your government is not unpatriotic,” he said. “To not question your government is unpatriotic.”

These are unusual choices for a generally cautious Obama to have made. His foreign policy orientation has followed that laid out by the Bush administration, with some general differences. Obama’s temperament is not Bush’s, which means that he has been less brash and cowboy-like in his demeanour. Cleverly, Obama has avoided the pitfalls of international law by simply skirting them: rather than get bogged down with discussions about the Geneva Conventions, illegal detentions and judicial processes, Obama has extended the use of extrajudicial assassinations using U.S. Special Forces and drones. No wonder that Obama chose Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) veteran John Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser who gave the April 2012 speech defending the use of drones, as his next CIA chief.

Kerry, who has moved away from his anti-war interlude, is a pragmatist who also favours the use of a “low-footprint” type of intervention, which includes drones, sanctions and sabotage rather than “high-footprint” invasions using hundreds of thousands of ground troops. Hagel, too, is on board with this approach. In 2009, he told students at the College of St. Benedict that the U.S. faced stiff challenges in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. There is no way that the U.S. can send large numbers of troops into these countries. “Well, the President is going to have to figure out a way that you use force, and we do need to use force, smart, wise application of that force—the drones are very important.” Drones, he noted, allow the U.S. to make a decisive impact “without bogging down armies and really taking big casualties and putting a lot of money in”.

Obama and Kerry, Hagel and Brennan—all are in agreement that the flagging U.S. economy cannot bear the expense of more land wars, and the tired U.S. military is not now capable of dealing with another major military campaign. These men are administrators of the emergent Obama doctrine: maintain the massive reach of U.S. power through bases, utilise these bases to strike countries with drones, bombers and Special Forces, and use covert means (including sabotage and cyber-attacks) to send a strong message to adversaries in any part of the planet.

Policy vis-a-vis Iran

One area of apparent disagreement is over U.S. policy vis-a-vis Iran. Thus far the policy has been fairly straightforward. The U.S. believes that Iran’s nuclear policy has hostile motives, and it has used an accelerated set of threats and policy options to constrain Iran’s actions, including sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and cyber-attacks. University of Florida Professor Ido Oren, who studies U.S. domestic pressures on the Iran policy, believes that neither Kerry nor Hagel will change the U.S. policy trajectory. The general policy of sanctions and covert attacks “enjoys strong support among the professional bureaucracies [Defence and State], including the support of the top leadership of the U.S. armed forces”.

Others who watch Washington’s antics agree with Oren’s assessment. Professor Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco finds that Obama intends to be “tough, but pragmatic” in his second term, as realisation grows in the establishment that “unilateral military action would likely do more harm than good”. Certainly, Zunes notes, neither Kerry nor Hagel is an ideologue and both have been combat veterans whose bodies calibrated the costs of war, but neither is a dove. Professor Noam Chomsky concurs, saying that Hagel most likely will “take the same view as what appears to be that of the military and intelligence” agencies. This is not a departure for the Obama administration, but perhaps a better reflection of the foreign policy by drones favoured by it.

Former Iranian ambassador and member of the nuclear negotiation team Seyed Hossain Mousavian told me that the Kerry-Hagel combine “could be an opportunity to bring a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma”. But even Mousavian’s initial optimism quickly dulls. Tehran, he notes, “will assess Washington’s actions not words”. In 2008-09, after Obama’s initial election and inauguration, he introduced some “willingness for an engagement policy with Tehran, based on no preconditions and threats”. Iran’s leadership decided not to prejudge Obama. But four years later, Mousavian points out, Obama “proudly declared that under his leadership the most comprehensive sanctions and isolation policies have been applied on Tehran”. The mismatch between words and actions, Mousavian suggests, has moved Tehran to “question the true intentions of Washington”. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had said that the U.S. offer of capitulation “was an iron hand covered with a velvet glove”. In response to this, he told the U.S. government, “you change and we will also change our behaviour”.

Hagel has distanced himself from one of the pillars of the Obama policy, namely unilateral sanctions that exceed those of the United Nations. On January 7, Hagel told Lincoln Journal Star, “I have not supported unilateral sanctions because when it is us alone they don’t work and they just isolate the United States. United Nations sanctions are working. When we just decree something, that doesn’t work.” Nonetheless, Hagel does not diverge from the overall U.S. policy establishment’s assessment of Iran. “I have said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism,” he said. It would be trivial to assume that Hagel is either anti-war or committed to a rapprochement with Iran. His is simply a tactical disagreement with the hawks.

The Israel lobby opposes the nomination of Hagel, claiming that he is either simply anti-Israel or more dangerously anti-Semitic. Neither charge is accurate. Hagel’s general orientation is to push for a realistic U.S. foreign policy that is not tethered to Israel’s irredentist aims. He once said that he is a U.S. Senator and not a Senator of Israel. In light of this, Hagel has called for a balanced U.S. approach to the Middle East (West Asia) in order to actually be able to broker some kind of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and therefore remove from the table one of the great blights against the U.S. in the Arab world.

The WikiLeaks cache of State Department cables reveals Kerry as a Hagel-type pragmatist. In 2009, he told Lebanese President Michel Sleiman that the “clock is ticking” on negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The same year, Kerry told Syria’s Vice-President Faruq al-Shar’a that the U.S. would oppose Israeli settlements. In 2010, Kerry told the Emir of Qatar that the U.S. was willing to broker a peace deal that gave East Jerusalem to Palestine as its capital. Such views have sent a frisson of fear down the back of the Israeli ruling establishment, and they have exercised the overactive imagination of the Israel lobby in the U.S. Both Hagel and Kerry are eager for a bit of policy space regarding Israel so that they can properly execute the very policies that the U.S. and Israel wish to see enacted: a strong Israel, a weakened Iran and a pliant Palestinian population. Nothing in the records of either Kerry or Hagel demonstrates any weakness in the core element of U.S. foreign policy, namely, fealty to Israeli ambitions. As Dina Kraft put it in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in late December, Kerry has “an exemplary voting record in the Senate on Israel-related issues, is a strong advocate of Israel’s right to defend itself, has repeatedly stood up against global anti-Semitism and believes in a muscular American posture against Iran’s nuclear designs”. If Tel Aviv is hyperventilating, it is an act to ensure that it reminds Washington who calls the shots for its West Asia policy.

Hagel’s policy of restraint and Kerry’s policy of caution are simply temperamental and tactical divergences from the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby. The goals remain the same. In September 2012, Hagel co-authored an important opinion piece in The Washington Post, which emphasises continuity for U.S. policy. “Our position is fully consistent with the policy of Presidents for more than a decade of keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution.” All options remain on the table. Little will change.

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