Pivot to the Middle East
Chuck Hagel possesses the cool-headed skills to help return stability to the war-torn region
By John Grula 01/30/2013
President Obama’s Jan. 7 nomination of Chuck Hagel to be his new Secretary of Defense is a bold and gutsy move that presages major changes in America’s foreign and military policies.
Hagel is a former Republican senator from Nebraska who served two six-year terms from 1997 to 2009. He is also a Vietnam War veteran who enlisted and eventually became an infantry squad leader. Badly wounded twice in combat, he was later awarded two Purple Hearts. If his nomination is confirmed, he would be the first veteran of that war and the first enlisted man to become Defense Secretary. He knows the horrors of combat in war firsthand, unlike Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, two warmongers who never saw combat but started and prosecuted unnecessary and brutal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hagel has been critical of both of these wars, and he alienated many Republican colleagues in the US Senate with his denunciations of President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps and the Iraq War. Like Obama, Hagel wants to bring the troops home from Afghanistan sooner rather than later, and keep them home as the military is reformed and downsized.
Ever the independent and maverick, Hagel has also expressed skepticism about taking military action against Iran over its nuclear program, and instead favors continued diplomacy, using force only as a last resort. The fact that Hagel’s nomination is being vehemently opposed by the likes of the Bill Kristol-led GOP outfit, the Emergency Committee for Israel, indicates Hagel not only greatly prefers a peaceful resolution to the standoff with Iran, but would also do much more to promote Palestinian statehood.
Sen. Hagel has other progressive positions that have put him in the line of fire of his conservative opponents. He has been highly critical of the bloated Pentagon budget, and conservative commentator David Brooks of The New York Times has argued that the main reason Obama nominated Hagel is “to supervise the beginning of [a] generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.” Amen to that.
Even more remarkably, Hagel has endorsed Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and he is a major supporter of efforts to reduce the numbers and role of nuclear weapons.
In fall 2011, the Obama administration issued a series of announcements that the US would be expanding and intensifying its already substantial military and diplomatic presence in the Asia-Pacific arena, especially the southern part of that region. This US-Asia “pivot” is seen primarily as a response to the growing economic and military power of China.
While Asia-Pacific nations and China are certainly important concerns, the potential threat from China is overblown, and it is diplomatically unproductive to make China feel that we are trying to “contain” it. Plus, there are Asian-Pacific counterweights to China, such as Australia, Japan, India and South Korea. If federal government deficits mean that our huge military budget is due for some significant reductions, we should let these allies shoulder more of the responsibility for Asian-Pacific security.
Moreover, events in the Middle East over the last two years amply demonstrate that this region has become a much bigger threat to world peace and economic prosperity than the Asia-Pacific. The “Arab Spring” revolutions have created ongoing instability in Egypt and other Arab nations, with the Muslim Brotherhood coming into power in Egypt and realigning its foreign policy in ways that could increase the chance of war with Israel.
Meanwhile, a bloody civil war rages in Syria, with tens of thousands already killed and a swelling refugee problem that could ignite military conflicts with Syria’s neighbors, such as Turkey and Lebanon. In addition, Iraq remains very unstable and Iran is growing increasingly nervous as its ally in Syria, the Assad regime, appears close to falling.
Finally, Israel’s already belligerent stance toward Iran may become even more hostile after Israeli elections later this month, and the possibility that it could launch a preemptive military strike against Iran may only become greater. A regional conflagration in the Middle East would not only mean a huge loss of life, but the resulting disruption of oil supplies from the area, which could plunge the world back into recession, or worse.
Thus, the Obama administration should now be pivoting to the Middle East while putting the Asia-Pacific theater on the back burner. It will require all of our diplomatic skills to return the Middle East to stability, as well as cool heads at the departments of Defense and State.
Who better to guide us through these shoals than Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon and Sen. John Kerry (also a Vietnam vet) at the State Department?