“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us”
With the 113th Congress about to be sworn in, new beginnings are getting under way in Washington DC. Fresh faces will be joining both houses of Congress, and significant shake-ups are taking place over at the White House as well. On the 21st of December, President Barack Obama announced his plans to nominate former Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry as his Secretary of State ; it was announced in March 2011 that current Secretary of State Hilary Clinton would not seek re-election for her post. But that’s not all; there is wide speculation that Obama’s nominee for the role of Secretary of Defense (another key foreign policy role in the administration) will be ex-GOP Senator Chuck Hagel. But what do these nominees mean for the future of American foreign policy?
Let’s start by looking at Mr Hagel. Having served in the Senate for twelve years, he went on to become a co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board- an influential executive office when it comes to foreign policy. Furthermore, he is the Chairman of the Atlantic Council, an eminent and reputable think-tank based in DC, specialising in public policy and international affairs. With a résumé like this, it’s hardly surprising that President Obama considered Hagel to be an experienced and well-qualified candidate.
But what about his stances on the key issues? For one thing, Mr Hagel seems to favour adopting a tougher stance on Israel. He is a supporter of dialogue between Iran and Hamas, and is quoted in Aaron David Miller’s book, The Much Too Promised Land, as saying “I’m not an Israeli Senator. I’m a United States Senator”. He is critical of the influence that the Jewish lobby exerts on Capitol Hill. Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt wrote in Foreign Policy that “The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free”. Hagel is also criticised by more right-wing critics for being “soft” on Iran; Hagel has indicated that he supports less interventionist policies in the Middle East, preferring dialogue and negotiation talks instead.
In spite of all his political experience, however, Hagel’s confirmation process will be by no means an easy ride. This is due to two main reasons, the first of which is his party affiliation. It may seem surprising that Obama should nominate a Republican to such an important cabinet role, but it is not rare for Presidents to appoint politicians from another party. Indeed, the opposition to Hagel will not come from Democrats in Congress, but from his own party. Many Republican Senators and House Representatives have been heavily critical of his stance on Israel, seeing it as hostile towards one of the US’s key allies. Hagel is also an outspoken critic of George W. Bush’s administration’s foreign policy, particularly on the Iraq War. In 2007 he is famously quoted as saying “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs!”. Sound- bites such as these amount to a candidate which will not exactly sail through the confirmation process- especially in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
There is potentially another- more sensitive- issue. In 1998, Democrat President Bill Clinton nominated philanthropist James Hormel as the US Ambassador to Luxembourg. This was a move which was met with strong opposition from Hagel, on the grounds that Hormel was “openly, aggressively gay”. This comment will not make his confirmation any easier, especially in a Congress which is more affable to the LGBT community than ever before. As damning as this remark may seem, it must be noted that 1998 was, as Glenn Greenwald puts it in The Guardian, a different universe when it comes to LGBT equality. There were virtually no prominent Democrats who supported marriage equality, let alone Republicans. And since this criticism of Hagel resurfaced, he has apologised profusely for his remarks, vowing that he is a full supporter of ‘open service’ and LGBT military families. Steve Clemons, an openly gay foreign policy insider who has known Hagel for years, wrote in The Atlantic that “Chuck Hagel is pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.'”
So it seems that Hagel’s confirmation process could prove to be a political rollercoaster. But in terms of his stance on Middle Eastern policy and the role of the military, Hagel, if confirmed, has the potential to drive America in a very different foreign policy direction. He will undoubtedly be taking on one of the most powerful positions in government- we can only hope that his critics will be eating their words in two years’ time.