Kerry and Hagel: Can Two Vietnam Vets End the War in Afghanistan?
After a bruising confirmation hearing, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel was confirmed as United States Secretary of Defense. Hagel’s confirmation today, and the recent one of John Kerry at the US State Department mark a departure from the first term of the Obama administration. If President Obama’s first term in office can be largely viewed as Bill Clinton’s third term, the nominations of Hagel and Kerry could be, hopefully, the indication of a slight distancing from a full tilt pro-war and pro-Israel foreign policy. While it would be naive to perceive either Kerry or Hagel as doves, these two Vietnam veterans are certainly less hawkish than Hillary Clinton and Clintonite Leon Panetta. The confirmation of Chuck Hagel will not be well received by Israel and the all-powerful Jewish lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Ultimately, the nominations of Kerry and Hagel indicate that the campaign promises expressed by President Obama to get the US out of Afghanistan are real and regarded as a foreign policy priority.
Withdrawing the US military from Afghanistan: the number one job for Hagel and Kerry
Just like in Vietnam, the war in Afghanistan is a quagmire, and unquestionably Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel are the most qualified politicians in Washington to understand this. Both know that the war is unwinnable on the battlefield. The Afghanistan war is the United States’ longest military involvement, and it is a war of attrition against an elusive enemy. If Kerry returned from Vietnam resolutely opposed to the war and was very vocal about it in 1971, this was not the case for Hagel. But lately, Hagel’s positions on America’s war adventures have been an anomaly in Washington. He has consistently voiced his opposition to the troop build ups in Iraq pushed by the Bush administration and rubber stamped by the US Congress. But even if Hagel has some good intentions, he will certainly face serious opposition from the military leadership at the Pentagon. In a recent report assessing the readiness of Afghan troops, the Department of Defense estimated that very few divisions are ready to fight the Taliban. Another enormous job, related to defining a coherent exit strategy from Afghanistan, will be for Kerry and Hagel to repair the damaged US relationship with Pakistan.
Will Kerry and Hagel bring a more balanced US policy in the Middle-East?
The main opposition to Hagel’s nomination came from groups and individuals close to Israel. On February 14, an online magazine called the Washington Free Beacon alleged that back in 2007, Chuck Hagel called the State Department “an adjunct to the Israeli foreign minister’s office.” In a town where Israel, through groups like AIPAC, has so much power, this unconfirmed statement attributed to Hagel immediately became fodder for pro-Israeli Senators such as Lindsey Graham to delay Hagel’s nomination by several days. The founder and editor of the online publication is Michael Goldfarb, and he is also the main strategist behind a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel, which is anonymously financed but is rumored to be an offshoot of AIPAC. During the last election cycle, the Emergency Committee for Israel financed advertisements against politicians considered to be “not supportive enough of Israel.” AIPAC and the Netanyahu administration will not be happy about Mr. Hagel’s confirmation. Hagel’s views on Iran, notably, are considered too soft and conciliatory.
Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran, less on the agenda?
Chuck Hagel’s arrival at the Pentagon might be a welcome change from his predecessor, former CIA chief and pro-Israel Clitonite Leon Panetta. As a poison parting gift to his successor, Panetta gave an alarmist exclusive interview to the Wall Street Journal in early February about the “growing threats” from Iran. Panetta accused Iran of smuggling small but very effective “man-pad” anti-aircraft weapons to its neighboring allies, namely the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Panetta’s 19-month run as secretary of defense was a period marked with a focus on preparation of military action against Iran, Hagel’s focus should be different, unless he is forced to do otherwise. Chuck Hagel is highly skeptical of military operation in Iran, and when Hagel was Senator of Nebraska he even voted, in 2007, against labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.