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Are Hagel and Obama “Soul Mates” on Defense Policy?

On January 10, 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama explained his opposition to the Iraq surge of additional troops by making a prediction: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” It was an early indication of Obama’s poor judgment and instinct to substitute ideological stubbornness for serious analysis. As we soon found out, Obama was just about as wrong as could be. I say “just about,” because Obama’s error was, surprisingly, eclipsed the very next day by the one man who turned out to be more mistaken than Obama, by saying the surge was “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”

That man, of course, was Chuck Hagel. Obama and Hagel would develop a friendship, and repeat this pattern. They would travel to Iraq together, where Hagel was dismissive and suspicious of the military’s top brass. Obama would take office and do the same. Hagel would speak out against tough Iran sanctions, and Obama would work against them from the White House, opposing several iterations of them and finally watering them down when he couldn’t prevent sanctions from passing Congress. Hagel would loudly criticize even the contemplation of military action against Iran, and Obama would have his secretary of defense deliver a similar message to Israel. It is this pattern that has led Hagel’s critics to express concern about his nomination to be secretary of defense. Many worry Obama shares Hagel’s views; Obama’s defenders assure us he does not. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward says the critics are right, and relays a conversation Obama and Hagel had at the beginning of Obama’s first term:

According to an account that Hagel later gave, and is reported here for the first time, he told Obama: “We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don’t control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they” — the military and diplomats — “tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for….

Obama did not say much but listened. At the time, Hagel considered Obama a “loner,” inclined to keep a distance and his own counsel. But Hagel’s comments help explain why Obama nominated his former Senate colleague to be his next secretary of defense. The two share similar views and philosophies as the Obama administration attempts to define the role of the United States in the transition to a post-superpower world.

Hagel’s foreign policy insight isn’t exactly stellar, to say the least. But it impressed Obama because, according to Woodward, it mirrors his own. Now it’s true that Hagel has been going around Capitol Hill claiming to support whatever policies Obama also says he supports and whatever policies he’ll need to support to ensure successful confirmation. But it is just silly to try and pretend that Obama doesn’t have a record and history of agreeing with Hagel on many of these issues.

Yesterday’s other Hagel revelation, if you can call it that, was what he said at a 2009 J Street conference. J Street had been refusing to release the video of Hagel’s speech, but it turned out that the prepared text was online the whole time at Hagel’s old think tank, as Yair Rosenberg discovered. J Street’s refusal to release the video suggested there might be some offensive content in it. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead, it just seems to have been a case of J Street being J Street–secretive, bizarrely defensive, reminiscent of when J Street claimed it was not funded by George Soros when in fact it was greatly funded by George Soros.

In the speech, Hagel offers an endorsement of an obnoxious Thomas Friedman column and seems to hold by the discredited “linkage” theory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also called the attempt to isolate Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “bewildering.” It is neither a well-informed nor wise speech text, but it doesn’t seem to contain any real surprises either. Nor is it a surprise, however, to read Woodward refer to Hagel as Obama’s “soul mate” on defense policy. And that is precisely what worries his critics the most.