The news that President Obama has finally decided to move ahead with the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the secretary of defense illustrates the difference between politics and policy. Last year while in the midst of a re-election year Jewish charm offensive, the president not only reiterated that he would never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon but explicitly disavowed any intention of backing off that pledge and adopting a policy centering on “containing” the Islamist regime. But election years are for promises and second terms are about policy implementation. The appointment of Hagel, who, despite strong opposition from the pro-Israel community and gays, is a lock to be confirmed by his former Senate colleagues, illustrates the gap between what Obama’s supporters were told and what is likely to happen over the next four years.
The president’s defenders spent the last year trying to convince others and themselves that Obama is not only a good friend of Israel but that he should be trusted to take action against Iran if diplomacy fails. But placing someone at the head of the Pentagon who has been an opponent of a tough policy on Iran and a stern critic of Israel and its supporters sends a clear signal that Tehran has little to worry about from a second Obama administration.
Some of Obama’s critics have worried that once re-elected, he would end the U.S.-Israel alliance, but such a scenario was never in the cards even though he is the least friendly president to the Jewish state in a generation. The alliance has such a broad American constituency and security cooperation between the two countries has been institutionalized to the point where not even having a Hagel running the Pentagon can derail it. The next four years will see plenty of tension between Obama and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will be re-elected later this month, but there are severe limits to how far the president can go when venting his spleen about the Israelis–and he knows it.
However, the Hagel appointment does illustrate not only his level of comfort with someone who has floated Walt-Mearsheimer-style rhetoric about the “Jewish lobby” but also a man who has been an advocate of taking the use of force against Iran off the table. It can be argued that having him at the table when the president will determine when diplomacy has failed (as if it has already not been demonstrated time and again that the idea of a diplomatic window with Iran is a myth) or if an attack to forestall an Iranian nuke is wise will not predetermine the outcome of those discussions. But how is it possible not to draw conclusions from the fact that Obama has chosen as his chief advisor on military and security issues a person who will fight tooth and nail to let Iran off the hook no matter what happens?
The president may have told last year’s AIPAC conference that the United States would not contain a nuclear Iran and then told the nation during his third debate with Mitt Romney that a deal with Tehran means that it must not have a nuclear program. But while Congress could make his life miserable if he tried to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, there will be no such leverage when it comes to forcing him to take action on Iran.
Four years of Obama’s of attempts to engage Iran or to negotiate with them coupled with belated and loosely enforced sanctions have already led the Iranians to conclude that the U.S. is a paper tiger that they need not fear. Hagel’s nomination will confirm them in this belief and dooms any effort to revive the P5+1 talks to failure. It will also make it clear to the Israelis that they are probably on their own when it comes to the Iranian threat.
There’s little doubt that Hagel will backtrack on some of his Iran positions during his confirmation hearings. And we will be reassured that the president makes policy and that Hagel’s job will be just to implement it. But an administration with such a person in a position of influence cannot be trusted to fairly evaluate the nature of the Iranian threat or to deal with it. No matter what was said by the president on the Iran issue last year, Hagel’s appointment shows his promises will have little to do with what ultimately happens during the next four years. That’s a point that the Senate needs to take into account as it prepares to consider this nomination.