Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michele Flournoy

Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

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Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

Hagel was brought on because the media was still falling for the “team of rivals” narrative on the Obama administration. To recap: Obama brought into his administration Cabinet officials who had a high enough profile that they could have made trouble for his agenda outside the administration. He wanted to coopt their credibility and silence their dissent. Hillary Clinton, a senator who could have impacted Obama’s ability to get legislation through Congress, and Samantha Power, a loose cannon who likes to publicly accuse others of being terrible people, were prime examples of this.

Obama wanted Republicans too, so he kept Bob Gates on at Defense and eventually brought in Hagel there as well. The media bizarrely saw in this transparent ploy what they wanted to see: Obama the postpartisan hero, the modern Lincoln. It was not the press’s finest moment.

Hagel was a particularly interesting gamble for Obama. On the one hand, he is a decorated war veteran and Republican who had the credibility to carry out Obama’s sullen retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other, his ineptitude and intellectual limitations matched those of the White House he was joining, so it was clear from day one that nothing about the administration’s crumbling foreign policy would improve.

Obama wanted a yes-man in Hagel, and thought he was getting one. He and his increasingly insular inner circle, which at some point soon will be just the president and Valerie Jarrett, make policy, as Max noted earlier. He didn’t want different opinions, and he didn’t want a range of options. He wanted a droid. And unfortunately for him, as the New York Times points out, this was not the droid he was looking for:

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

That last sentence is key. Not only was Hagel–yes, Chuck Hagel–too hawkish for Obama on ISIS, but it was the administration still “struggling to define” the threat. You can say Hagel was a slow learner all you want; he was a faster learner than the president he served.

And some of the picture will be filled in when Hagel’s successor is determined. Here’s the Times on the rumors of Hagel’s replacement:

Even before the announcement of Mr. Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense; Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Reed is reportedly out. But Flournoy’s inclusion on this list is notable. When the president was last seeking a defense secretary, Flournoy’s name was floated repeatedly. She would be a “historic” choice, satisfying the administration’s obsession with identity politics. And she was highly respected all around. Plus, she was already working in the administration. So why wasn’t she chosen?

That question seemed to have been answered with the publication of the memoirs of Leon Panetta, Hagel’s predecessor at Defense. Panetta’s memoirs made a splash when part of the book was adapted for an early October TIME magazine piece criticizing Obama’s handling of the transition in Iraq. Some, including Panetta, told the president he should leave a residual force behind. Panetta writes:

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

If Flournoy was willing to be named publicly as someone who not only disagreed with Obama’s handling of Iraq but also essentially accused the president of acting against American interests, it’s easier to understand why she was not given the nod at Defense. If she’s named secretary of defense now, it casts some doubt on the Times’s speculation that Hagel’s disagreement with Obama on ISIS played as much a role in his ouster as is being reported.

The “team of rivals” narrative was debunked long ago. Hagel was there so his credibility on a particular policy could be coopted. After that, he was always expendable. The question now is whose credibility does the president need to coopt next?

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National Defense Panel’s Bombshell Report

It has gotten pretty much zero press attention, but last week the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel issued what should have been seen as a bombshell review of American military readiness, or lack thereof. The bipartisan credentials of the board members cannot be doubted. The panel was co-chaired by Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. Members included both Bush-era Defense Department appointees such as Eric Edelman and Obama-era successors such as Michele Flournoy. The only thing uniting the members of the panel was deep knowledge of, and interest in, defense policy.

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It has gotten pretty much zero press attention, but last week the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel issued what should have been seen as a bombshell review of American military readiness, or lack thereof. The bipartisan credentials of the board members cannot be doubted. The panel was co-chaired by Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. Members included both Bush-era Defense Department appointees such as Eric Edelman and Obama-era successors such as Michele Flournoy. The only thing uniting the members of the panel was deep knowledge of, and interest in, defense policy.

Such a group might be expected to endorse the status quo as the lowest-common-denominator option. But that’s not what they did. Instead they issued a blistering denunciation of the impact that budget cuts–amounting to a trillion dollars over 10 years–are having on the armed forces. These cuts, they warned, “constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States. Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high risk force in the near future. That in turn will lead to an America that is not only less secure but also far less prosperous.”

The panel identified “disturbing” and “dangerous” gaps between the “capabilities and capacities” called for under the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and the actual “budget resources made available to the [Defense] Department.” Specifically the panel determined that both the Navy and Air Force need to grow and the Army and Marine Corps should not shrink as much as currently envisioned.

The Navy, the panel noted, should have between 323 and 346 ships yet it is currently “on a budgetary path to 260 ships or less.”

The Air Force, the panel found, “now fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history” and that situation is going to get much worse because it is going to lose half of its current inventory of bombers, fighter aircraft, and surveillance aircraft by 2019. The panel called for an increase in “the number of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of conducting both ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and  long range strike in contested airspace.”

The panel also found that currently contemplated reductions in Army end-strength go too far. “We believe the Army and the Marine Corps should not be reduced below their pre-9/11 end strengths–490,000 active-duty soldiers in the Army and 182,000 active Marines,” the panel concluded. Yet on the current trajectory the army is likely to wind up with 420,000 soldiers and the Corps with 175,000 marines.

The defense panel rightly warned that “sustaining these significant cuts to our defense budgets will not solve our fiscal woes, but will increasingly jeopardize our international defense posture and ultimately damage our security, prospects for economic growth, and other interests.”

But no one in Washington, on either side of the aisle, seems to care. All Republicans seem to care about anymore is avoiding tax hikes. All that Democrats seem to care about anymore is avoiding cuts in entitlement programs. Whatever happened to the parties of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy? They seem to be as gone as those presidents. And America is going to pay the price unless we see some leadership on defense issues at the top of our political system on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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GOP Caving on Sequestration?

Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

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Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

President Obama’s defense secretary, noted budget hawk Leon Panetta, has said that sequestration would be a “disaster” with “a devastating effect on not only national defense but I think on the rest of the country.”

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make any cuts in defense. Former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy has some good suggestions in the Wall Street Journal for cutting bloated headquarters, eliminating unneeded bases, making military medical benefits less generous, and paring back the civilian workforce. But significantly she attaches no price tag to the reductions she seeks. The likelihood is that all of her savings, even if enacted, would not make a significant dent in the defense budget given that our military capabilities must grow to deal with threats from Africa to China. In any case sequestration is a mindless process of across-the-board hacking that will do major damage to vital programs; it is the very antithesis of the kind of rational pruning and rebalancing that Fluornoy suggests.

Now to the politics: In the last election, there was evidence that Republicans had lost their decades-old advantage on foreign policy and national security to a party led by the president who ordered the Osama bin Laden raid. How on earth will Republicans ever regain their advantage on these crucial issues if they come out as more anti-defense than Obama’s own defense secretary on the issue of sequestration?

I sympathize with the concerns of House Republicans about runaway spending. The growing public debt is a major concern that if left unaddressed could hamper American productivity and power in the long term. But the way to deal with this issue isn’t to whack away at the defense budget, which even if entirely eliminated would still not close our staggering, trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits. Congress needs to tackle entitlement reform, like it or not. President Obama’s opposition may make that impossible in the short-term but eviscerating our defense capabilities–and thereby making the world a more dangerous place–isn’t a viable alternative.

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Obama’s Diversity Problem Might Not Be Easily Solved

As the White House scrambles to push back on the narrative that Obama’s cabinet lacks diversity, National Journal reports that there are few jobs left for potential female appointments (h/t HotAir):

Say Obama wants to make a grand gesture; what jobs are left? If he names a female labor secretary to succeed Solis, that will keep him at the status quo. But it’s not a top job and it’s one many women have held. Plus Solis is Hispanic, so now there’s that to worry about as well.

The only immediate opening with stature roughly equivalent to secretary of State, Defense, or Treasury is Lew’s job as White House chief of staff. To name a woman, Obama would have to throw top mentionees Ron Klain (former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden) and Denis McDonough (currently deputy national-security adviser) under the bus. He does have some logical female options, starting with Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco. Both now hold the title of deputy chief of staff.

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As the White House scrambles to push back on the narrative that Obama’s cabinet lacks diversity, National Journal reports that there are few jobs left for potential female appointments (h/t HotAir):

Say Obama wants to make a grand gesture; what jobs are left? If he names a female labor secretary to succeed Solis, that will keep him at the status quo. But it’s not a top job and it’s one many women have held. Plus Solis is Hispanic, so now there’s that to worry about as well.

The only immediate opening with stature roughly equivalent to secretary of State, Defense, or Treasury is Lew’s job as White House chief of staff. To name a woman, Obama would have to throw top mentionees Ron Klain (former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden) and Denis McDonough (currently deputy national-security adviser) under the bus. He does have some logical female options, starting with Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco. Both now hold the title of deputy chief of staff.

This is another reason why the Chuck Hagel defense secretary nomination was an odd choice. Michele Flournoy was arguably more qualified than Hagel for the role, yet she was passed over. Now, if Obama nominates a woman, it will look like a tokenism under external pressure. Worse, because all the roles he has left to fill are of lower standing, this makes it seem like he doesn’t trust a woman in a higher-ranking position.

There isn’t anything the left can do about this but complain, and I doubt this controversy will drag on much longer. Still, the extent of the backlash seems to have caught the White House off-guard, which only adds to the sense that Obama was unprepared for the second term transition.

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Democrats Would Be Damaged by Hagel

It sounds like President Obama isn’t blinking on his potential Chuck Hagel nomination. Mike Allen reports that the administration is actually quietly coming to Hagel’s defense, an unusual move that suggests its commitment on this:

In an unusual move designed to deflate another public strafing like the one that wounded Susan Rice, the Obama administration is coming to the defense of a potential nominee who has not yet been chosen: former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is the leading candidate to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did not get a swift defense from a network of supporters around Washington when she came under fire for her initial comments about the attack in Benghazi. Hagel allies, however, are jumping to his defense at a time when critics, especially strong supporters of Israel, are attacking him on the Hill, in the press and — beginning today — in ads on cable-news stations. …

An official with a Jewish organization emails: “When the [Anti-Defamation League], the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee come together on something, it is remarkable and rare. … [A]ll three have raised serious alarms based on long standing interactions with Hagel, not over an isolated vote … Why make Democratic senators … walk the plank on this, when by finding a qualified Democrat, we can please the base?” …

William S. Cohen, who was defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, and a senator and House member from Maine, said in a phone interview that Hagel is “enormously qualified,” and praised him for being a moderate Republican, a diminishing breed on the Hill. …

Cohen added that if the opposition builds, and then Obama makes another choice, “It makes it look like he’s getting rolled a second time. It’ll look like critics on the Hill are determining who his team is going to be.”

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It sounds like President Obama isn’t blinking on his potential Chuck Hagel nomination. Mike Allen reports that the administration is actually quietly coming to Hagel’s defense, an unusual move that suggests its commitment on this:

In an unusual move designed to deflate another public strafing like the one that wounded Susan Rice, the Obama administration is coming to the defense of a potential nominee who has not yet been chosen: former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is the leading candidate to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did not get a swift defense from a network of supporters around Washington when she came under fire for her initial comments about the attack in Benghazi. Hagel allies, however, are jumping to his defense at a time when critics, especially strong supporters of Israel, are attacking him on the Hill, in the press and — beginning today — in ads on cable-news stations. …

An official with a Jewish organization emails: “When the [Anti-Defamation League], the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee come together on something, it is remarkable and rare. … [A]ll three have raised serious alarms based on long standing interactions with Hagel, not over an isolated vote … Why make Democratic senators … walk the plank on this, when by finding a qualified Democrat, we can please the base?” …

William S. Cohen, who was defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, and a senator and House member from Maine, said in a phone interview that Hagel is “enormously qualified,” and praised him for being a moderate Republican, a diminishing breed on the Hill. …

Cohen added that if the opposition builds, and then Obama makes another choice, “It makes it look like he’s getting rolled a second time. It’ll look like critics on the Hill are determining who his team is going to be.”

The most popular argument from Hagel supporters is that his positions don’t matter, since he would have to answer to Obama anyway. That’s deluded. Of course Obama has the final word on policy, but if he just wanted somebody to mindlessly carry it out without giving any input, he could pick a far less polarizing figure than Hagel. You choose someone like Hagel because a.) you agree with his views, and b.) you want to let the world know that.

If Obama is unserious about preventing a nuclear Iran, he’ll be unserious about it no matter who his defense secretary is. But if he chooses someone like Michele Flournoy (who isn’t great either), pro-Israel Democrats can still pretend Obama means what he says in his AIPAC speeches. If he chooses Hagel, that’s basically like coming out and saying he supports containment.

“Why make Democratic senators … walk the plank on this, when by finding a qualified Democrat, we can please the base?” a Jewish organization official told Mike Allen in the story above. Walking the plank is a good way to put it.

If Hagel is nominated, he will most likely get through, but it will be brutal for Democrats. Not just the confirmation process–though it will be embarrassing and damaging for Obama to have to defend some of the statements and positions Hagel’s critics will drag out. The real damage would come later–think of how the left demonized Donald Rumsfeld. Every move Hagel makes would be scrutinized and politicized. Anything controversial would be hung around the necks of the Democratic Party. For the most part, Republicans have gone easy on Obama’s defense secretaries, but that would change.

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Buzz Building for Flournoy as Defense Secretary?

Adam Kredo reports that former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy may have replaced Chuck Hagel as the current frontrunner for the secretary of defense nod:

Former Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel may no longer be President Obama’s favored pick to run the Defense Department, sources told the Free Beacon.

Hagel immediately drew a frosty reception from observers who criticized him for advocating in favor of direct unconditional talks with Iran and for backing sizable cuts to the defense budget. …

Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, is currently viewed as the frontrunner for the post.

“She will be the likely candidate as there has been criticism from liberals for possibly replacing a female secretary of state with a male, and [Flournoy would be] the first woman secretary of defense,” said one senior Senate aide with knowledge of the process. “Hagel could have been a test by the president—if Hagel’s positions could be supported then likely so would Flournoy.”

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Adam Kredo reports that former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy may have replaced Chuck Hagel as the current frontrunner for the secretary of defense nod:

Former Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel may no longer be President Obama’s favored pick to run the Defense Department, sources told the Free Beacon.

Hagel immediately drew a frosty reception from observers who criticized him for advocating in favor of direct unconditional talks with Iran and for backing sizable cuts to the defense budget. …

Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, is currently viewed as the frontrunner for the post.

“She will be the likely candidate as there has been criticism from liberals for possibly replacing a female secretary of state with a male, and [Flournoy would be] the first woman secretary of defense,” said one senior Senate aide with knowledge of the process. “Hagel could have been a test by the president—if Hagel’s positions could be supported then likely so would Flournoy.”

Flournoy’s name has been batted around as a more acceptable alternative to Hagel. But this is the first recent report I’ve seen that says she’s the most likely candidate. Either Obama has already determined a Hagel nomination isn’t worth the fight, or some senior Senate aide is trying to pump up speculation about Flournoy.

Flournoy would certainly be easier to confirm than Hagel, and Obama wouldn’t have to worry about defending someone who has made questionable comments about Israel and the “Jewish lobby.” That wouldn’t be the only benefit, either. BuzzFeed reported yesterday that women’s groups are clamoring for Obama to appoint the first female secretary of defense (especially since he’s losing a female secretary of state).

“I think she’s definitely getting a second look after Rice,” said a longtime Democratic defense policy hand, referring to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for the post at State.

Feminist groups are also pushing the White House to appoint Flournoy. 

“There is no doubt that the woman knows her business,” said Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, which advocates for women to take on leadership roles in all spheres.

“It’s Defense — the area where we have the slowest movement of women into top positions,” she said. “It would be a breakthrough.”

Obama’s reliance on the votes of women to defeat Mitt Romney raises the pressure on him to do more than seriously consider a woman for the top job, said one Democratic strategist. 

It also can’t help Hagel’s case that this Emergency Committee for Israel ad will be running tomorrow and Thursday throughout the Washington, D.C. area:

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WaPo Editorial Board: Hagel Wrong for Defense

The Washington Post editorial board came out against Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination for secretary of defense this morning, citing his “near the fringe” views on Iran and defense spending: 

But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.

We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)

What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.

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The Washington Post editorial board came out against Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination for secretary of defense this morning, citing his “near the fringe” views on Iran and defense spending: 

But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.

We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)

What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.

Not only does Obama have better options than Hagel, he has options that would be easier to confirm. Someone like Flournoy would have no problem. While Hagel could make it through, it would be a messy fight that would highlight issues Obama is already seen as weak on–particularly his commitment to Israel and seriousness on Iran.

And while Hagel is a former member of the Senate club, he would be pressed on comments he’s made that are highly embarrassing for Obama, including a reference to the “Jewish lobby” intimidating members of Congress. Michael Warren reports that Lindsey Graham and John McCain, both members of the committee that would hold the defense secretary hearings, would question Hagel on these comments if he’s nominated:

Asked about Hagel’s 2008 statement that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people here [in Washington, D.C.],” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said Hagel will “have to answer for that comment” if he is nominated. 

“And he’ll have to answer about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” continued Graham, a member of the Armed Services committee. “I think he’ll have to answer all those questions.” …

John McCain of Arizona said he “strongly disagree[s]” with Hagel’s comments on the “Jewish lobby.”

“I know of no ‘Jewish lobby,’” McCain said. “I know that there’s strong support for Israel here. I know of no ‘Jewish lobby.’ I hope he would identify who that is.”

There is a solid case against nominating Hagel, but not a solid case for choosing him over another option. Someone like Flournoy would still be compatible with Obama ideologically, but she would come with far less baggage.

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Containment Has Its Own Costs

The signs are building that administration officials are essentially throwing up their hands when it comes to Iran policy and implicitly conceding defeat. Their offer to hold talks with Tehran predictably went nowhere; that wasted the administration’s first year. The justification for all this futile diplomatic activity was that it would supposedly enhance American credibility to seek crippling sanctions against Iran. No such sanctions are on the horizon; instead what we will get, at best, is more toothless gestures from the UN. With time running out, the only feasible way to stop or at least substantially delay the Iranian nuclear program is through military action. But, as senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy concedes, that option is “off the table.” (She added “in the short term,” but does anyone imagine that the Nobel laureate in the White House is going to start a war in the long term?) Meanwhile, the growing rift between the U.S. and Israel makes it less likely that Israel will risk American wrath by striking Iran on its own. (Israeli officials are said to be worried that “a unilateral strike would cause a break with Washington that would threaten Israeli national interests even more than a nuclear-armed Iran.”)

So where does that leave us? With policy wonks and administration officials increasingly turning to “containment” and “deterrence” as the answer to Iran — a trend noted in this Washington Post article.

Those policies worked against the Soviet Union, but no one should have any illusions that they provide a painless fix to the threat posed by Iran. In the first place, even with the Soviets, there were a few moments when nuclear war was a serious possibility. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? There is no guarantee that a replay with Iran — say a Lebanese Missile Crisis — would be resolved so peaceably. Moreover, even if we avoided World War III, containing the Soviets was hardly bloodless — it cost the lives of nearly a 100,000 American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

For a reminder of how difficult containment can be, consider the latest news emanating from the Korean peninsula. There are reports circulating that a South Korean ship that sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 sailors was torpedoed by North Korea. Even if true, South Korea’s options are limited. What’s it going to do — attack a nuclear-armed state? The U.S. faced a similar quandary with the Soviet Union, whose nuclear arsenal gave it a free pass to commit all sorts of aggression against the U.S. and our allies, often by proxy.

The danger is much greater from a nuclear-armed Iran than from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The latter, after all, is a sclerotic state whose leader’s only goal is to stay in power and enjoy various imported delicacies. Iran, by contrast, is a still a relatively young, revolutionary regime ruled by leaders with a fervor to remake the Middle East in accordance with their extremist ideology. Given all the carnage Iran is already responsible for — it has backed some of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq, among other places, and it has been behind the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American service personnel — it is terrifying to imagine what the region will look like when the mullahs have nukes. But that is precisely where we are headed thanks to the Obama administration’s feckless policies.

The signs are building that administration officials are essentially throwing up their hands when it comes to Iran policy and implicitly conceding defeat. Their offer to hold talks with Tehran predictably went nowhere; that wasted the administration’s first year. The justification for all this futile diplomatic activity was that it would supposedly enhance American credibility to seek crippling sanctions against Iran. No such sanctions are on the horizon; instead what we will get, at best, is more toothless gestures from the UN. With time running out, the only feasible way to stop or at least substantially delay the Iranian nuclear program is through military action. But, as senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy concedes, that option is “off the table.” (She added “in the short term,” but does anyone imagine that the Nobel laureate in the White House is going to start a war in the long term?) Meanwhile, the growing rift between the U.S. and Israel makes it less likely that Israel will risk American wrath by striking Iran on its own. (Israeli officials are said to be worried that “a unilateral strike would cause a break with Washington that would threaten Israeli national interests even more than a nuclear-armed Iran.”)

So where does that leave us? With policy wonks and administration officials increasingly turning to “containment” and “deterrence” as the answer to Iran — a trend noted in this Washington Post article.

Those policies worked against the Soviet Union, but no one should have any illusions that they provide a painless fix to the threat posed by Iran. In the first place, even with the Soviets, there were a few moments when nuclear war was a serious possibility. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? There is no guarantee that a replay with Iran — say a Lebanese Missile Crisis — would be resolved so peaceably. Moreover, even if we avoided World War III, containing the Soviets was hardly bloodless — it cost the lives of nearly a 100,000 American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

For a reminder of how difficult containment can be, consider the latest news emanating from the Korean peninsula. There are reports circulating that a South Korean ship that sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 sailors was torpedoed by North Korea. Even if true, South Korea’s options are limited. What’s it going to do — attack a nuclear-armed state? The U.S. faced a similar quandary with the Soviet Union, whose nuclear arsenal gave it a free pass to commit all sorts of aggression against the U.S. and our allies, often by proxy.

The danger is much greater from a nuclear-armed Iran than from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The latter, after all, is a sclerotic state whose leader’s only goal is to stay in power and enjoy various imported delicacies. Iran, by contrast, is a still a relatively young, revolutionary regime ruled by leaders with a fervor to remake the Middle East in accordance with their extremist ideology. Given all the carnage Iran is already responsible for — it has backed some of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq, among other places, and it has been behind the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American service personnel — it is terrifying to imagine what the region will look like when the mullahs have nukes. But that is precisely where we are headed thanks to the Obama administration’s feckless policies.

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Yet Another Step Backward

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said yesterday that military action against Iran is “off the table in the near term,” effectively walking back President Obama’s position that “all options are on the table.” She prefaced her statement with the banal assertion that “military force is an option of last resort,” which of course everyone knows and which implies by itself that force is off the table for now. But the United States nevertheless just softened its position again on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. If the president doesn’t return force to the table, it is going to stay off.

It seems as though the U.S. is trying to look irresolute and nonthreatening lately, but whether it’s on purpose or not, that’s what it looks like, and it isn’t helpful. A credible threat — simple deterrence — can make war somewhat less likely, just as police officers on the street make crime somewhat less likely. The Iranian government won’t cooperate with irresolute and nonthreatening enemies; it will steamroll irresolute and nonthreatening enemies.

Attacking Iran wouldn’t be my next step either. I’m entirely sympathetic to the administration’s aversion to it, and not only on behalf of American servicemen who may be injured or killed. I know lots of Iranians. All are decent people. Not a single one supports Tehran’s deranged government. All have friends and family back home, and it has been obvious for some time now that a very large percentage of their fellow citizens left inside the country feel the same way. I don’t want to see any of these people get killed, especially if they’re killed by us. The very idea fills me with horror.

And that’s before factoring in the Israelis and Lebanese who would also be killed if the war spreads to the Levant — a likely event. I spend enough time in the Middle East that I could even end up in a bomb shelter myself.

We have to be realistic, though. There is only the smallest of chances that the Iranian government will mothball its nuclear weapons program if it does not feel some serious heat. Some people can only be disarmed at gunpoint, and that’s true of nearly all belligerent people.

Yet “off the table” has become the new normal. It will remain the new normal until further notice. The United States looks like it’s in retreat. Hardly anyone in the world believed President Obama would ever order a strike even before this most recent of climb-downs.

The administration seems to forget that threatening military action doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go through with it, that we want to go through with it, that we yearn to go through with it, or that we’re warmongers. Look at Taiwan. It exists independently of China only because the United States has made it clear that an invasion of Taiwan would be punished severely. Chinese leaders find the threat credible and have therefore backed off to let Taiwan live. The U.S. doesn’t have to pull the trigger. It’s enough just to say don’t even think about it.

Former Communist countries in Eastern Europe were similarly placed under Western military protection after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow understands perfectly well that its liberated subjects are to be left alone — or else. Saying “hands off Lithuania” by bringing the country into NATO wasn’t cowboy behavior. It was prudent and wise, and it keeps the peace. Russia didn’t like it and still doesn’t like it, but it hasn’t gotten anyone killed.

Deterrence prevents armed conflict by making it clear to the other side that a war would be too costly and shouldn’t be tried. The reverse is true, too. Under certain conditions, war becomes more likely if it looks like there won’t be serious consequences.

Russia invaded Georgia a few years ago, but there is almost no chance that would have happened if Georgia had been a member of NATO. Russia would not have even considered it. The retaliation would have been devastating.

Deterrence might not work with Iran, but it’s even less likely to work if it’s downgraded, put on hold, or smells like a bluff. It’s all but certain to fail once the regime has nuclear weapons and can, short of incinerating cities with weapons of genocide, pretty much do whatever it wants.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said yesterday that military action against Iran is “off the table in the near term,” effectively walking back President Obama’s position that “all options are on the table.” She prefaced her statement with the banal assertion that “military force is an option of last resort,” which of course everyone knows and which implies by itself that force is off the table for now. But the United States nevertheless just softened its position again on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. If the president doesn’t return force to the table, it is going to stay off.

It seems as though the U.S. is trying to look irresolute and nonthreatening lately, but whether it’s on purpose or not, that’s what it looks like, and it isn’t helpful. A credible threat — simple deterrence — can make war somewhat less likely, just as police officers on the street make crime somewhat less likely. The Iranian government won’t cooperate with irresolute and nonthreatening enemies; it will steamroll irresolute and nonthreatening enemies.

Attacking Iran wouldn’t be my next step either. I’m entirely sympathetic to the administration’s aversion to it, and not only on behalf of American servicemen who may be injured or killed. I know lots of Iranians. All are decent people. Not a single one supports Tehran’s deranged government. All have friends and family back home, and it has been obvious for some time now that a very large percentage of their fellow citizens left inside the country feel the same way. I don’t want to see any of these people get killed, especially if they’re killed by us. The very idea fills me with horror.

And that’s before factoring in the Israelis and Lebanese who would also be killed if the war spreads to the Levant — a likely event. I spend enough time in the Middle East that I could even end up in a bomb shelter myself.

We have to be realistic, though. There is only the smallest of chances that the Iranian government will mothball its nuclear weapons program if it does not feel some serious heat. Some people can only be disarmed at gunpoint, and that’s true of nearly all belligerent people.

Yet “off the table” has become the new normal. It will remain the new normal until further notice. The United States looks like it’s in retreat. Hardly anyone in the world believed President Obama would ever order a strike even before this most recent of climb-downs.

The administration seems to forget that threatening military action doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go through with it, that we want to go through with it, that we yearn to go through with it, or that we’re warmongers. Look at Taiwan. It exists independently of China only because the United States has made it clear that an invasion of Taiwan would be punished severely. Chinese leaders find the threat credible and have therefore backed off to let Taiwan live. The U.S. doesn’t have to pull the trigger. It’s enough just to say don’t even think about it.

Former Communist countries in Eastern Europe were similarly placed under Western military protection after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow understands perfectly well that its liberated subjects are to be left alone — or else. Saying “hands off Lithuania” by bringing the country into NATO wasn’t cowboy behavior. It was prudent and wise, and it keeps the peace. Russia didn’t like it and still doesn’t like it, but it hasn’t gotten anyone killed.

Deterrence prevents armed conflict by making it clear to the other side that a war would be too costly and shouldn’t be tried. The reverse is true, too. Under certain conditions, war becomes more likely if it looks like there won’t be serious consequences.

Russia invaded Georgia a few years ago, but there is almost no chance that would have happened if Georgia had been a member of NATO. Russia would not have even considered it. The retaliation would have been devastating.

Deterrence might not work with Iran, but it’s even less likely to work if it’s downgraded, put on hold, or smells like a bluff. It’s all but certain to fail once the regime has nuclear weapons and can, short of incinerating cities with weapons of genocide, pretty much do whatever it wants.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Cleaning up Undersecretary Michele Flournoy’s mess (“Military force is an option of last resort. It’s off the table for now”), a Pentagon spokesman: “We are not taking any options off the table as we pursue the pressure and engagement tracks. … The president always has at his disposal a full array of options, including use of the military … It is clearly not our preferred course of action but it has never been, nor is it now, off the table.” Never underestimate how incompetent this crew is.

Is the Goldman Sachs case a big mess? “The testimony of a former Paulson & Co official could undercut the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud case against Goldman Sachs, CNBC has learned. The former Paulson lieutenant, Paolo Pellegrini, testified that he told ACA Management, the main investor in a Goldman mortgage-securities transaction, that Paulson intended to bet against—or short—the portfolio of mortgages ACA was assembling. If true, the testimony would contradict the SEC’s claim that ACA did not know Paulson was hoping the mortgage securities would fail and weaken charges that Goldman misled investors by not informing ACA of Paulson’s position.”

Did the White House mess with the SEC? “President Barack Obama is brushing off suggestions that the White House influenced the timing of fraud charges against Goldman Sachs. In an interview set to air Wednesday on CNBC, Obama said the White House had nothing to do with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to file fraud charges Friday against Goldman Sachs.” It was just a grand coincidence, I suppose.

Too messy for Blanche Lincoln: “Sen. Blanche Lincoln, under fire for keeping a $4,500 contribution from Goldman Sachs’s political action committee, has canceled a fundraising lunch with Goldman executives that was scheduled for Monday and would have netted many times that amount for the Arkansas Senator’s reelection campaign.”

Lots of people think the country is a mess: “Sixty-one percent (61%) of all voters now say the nation is heading down the wrong track, down slightly from last week but just one point above the lowest level of pessimism measured since last October.”

Robert Gates is in charge of keeping the messes to a minimum: “That new administration’s rapidly getting old, but Gates continues to serve, struggling to limit the damage done to our national defense. Recently, he fought to keep our new nuclear-giveaway treaty with Russia within tolerable bounds. That treaty’s bad — but without Gates it would have been worse. Now we know that he was also pushing on Iran. Last week, somebody (not Gates) leaked a January memo the SecDef sent to the White House. The message? We need to prepare for all contingencies regarding Iran. Now.”

The ongoing Massa ethics mess: “The top members on the House ethics committee interviewed Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday afternoon – just hours after the ethics panel created a special subcommittee to investigate sexual harassment allegations surrounding former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.).”

That mess widens: “The FBI is investigating the case of former Rep. Eric Massa, accused by his onetime male staff members of sexual harassment.”

Cleaning up Undersecretary Michele Flournoy’s mess (“Military force is an option of last resort. It’s off the table for now”), a Pentagon spokesman: “We are not taking any options off the table as we pursue the pressure and engagement tracks. … The president always has at his disposal a full array of options, including use of the military … It is clearly not our preferred course of action but it has never been, nor is it now, off the table.” Never underestimate how incompetent this crew is.

Is the Goldman Sachs case a big mess? “The testimony of a former Paulson & Co official could undercut the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud case against Goldman Sachs, CNBC has learned. The former Paulson lieutenant, Paolo Pellegrini, testified that he told ACA Management, the main investor in a Goldman mortgage-securities transaction, that Paulson intended to bet against—or short—the portfolio of mortgages ACA was assembling. If true, the testimony would contradict the SEC’s claim that ACA did not know Paulson was hoping the mortgage securities would fail and weaken charges that Goldman misled investors by not informing ACA of Paulson’s position.”

Did the White House mess with the SEC? “President Barack Obama is brushing off suggestions that the White House influenced the timing of fraud charges against Goldman Sachs. In an interview set to air Wednesday on CNBC, Obama said the White House had nothing to do with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to file fraud charges Friday against Goldman Sachs.” It was just a grand coincidence, I suppose.

Too messy for Blanche Lincoln: “Sen. Blanche Lincoln, under fire for keeping a $4,500 contribution from Goldman Sachs’s political action committee, has canceled a fundraising lunch with Goldman executives that was scheduled for Monday and would have netted many times that amount for the Arkansas Senator’s reelection campaign.”

Lots of people think the country is a mess: “Sixty-one percent (61%) of all voters now say the nation is heading down the wrong track, down slightly from last week but just one point above the lowest level of pessimism measured since last October.”

Robert Gates is in charge of keeping the messes to a minimum: “That new administration’s rapidly getting old, but Gates continues to serve, struggling to limit the damage done to our national defense. Recently, he fought to keep our new nuclear-giveaway treaty with Russia within tolerable bounds. That treaty’s bad — but without Gates it would have been worse. Now we know that he was also pushing on Iran. Last week, somebody (not Gates) leaked a January memo the SecDef sent to the White House. The message? We need to prepare for all contingencies regarding Iran. Now.”

The ongoing Massa ethics mess: “The top members on the House ethics committee interviewed Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday afternoon – just hours after the ethics panel created a special subcommittee to investigate sexual harassment allegations surrounding former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.).”

That mess widens: “The FBI is investigating the case of former Rep. Eric Massa, accused by his onetime male staff members of sexual harassment.”

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