Hagel Can Reveal the ‘Real’ Obama

Muslim Matters

Hagel Can Reveal the ‘Real’ Obama

By M K Bhadrakumar


U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel (L), stands next to counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (R), the nominee for CIA Director, at the White House in Washington in this January 7, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files

In Spanish, they say Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres – “Tell me with whom you walk and I will tell you who you are.”

When United States President Barack Obama walked into the East Room in the White House on Monday evening with former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, his nominee for defense secretary, that was the thought that came to mind. It was a short walk, which nonetheless had precipitated in its anticipation much animated debate in the Washington circuit.

Hagel is an extraordinary person for the US president to walk with at this point in America’s trajectory as the world’s lone superpower with a military budget that outstrips the rest of the world combined.

Obama underscored it by saying his choice of Hagel is “historic”, since the former senator would be the “first from the enlisted ranks” to serve as secretary of defense and “one of the few secretaries who have been wounded in war” who would know “war is not an abstraction… [he] understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”

Obama said everything that he thought was needed to be said about Hagel – that is, almost everything. However, what he didn’t say and what is on everyone’s mind nonetheless is also important to recount: Hagel is someone who opposed the 2003 Iraq war and in fact went on to seek an investigation over the reasons given by the George W Bush administration to justify the invasion. He is someone who questioned the “surge” in Afghanistan and drew parallels with Vietnam, and who is a strong critic of economic sanctions in general.

He also favors talks with Hamas.

Here is someone who won’t mistake engagement as “appeasement” but will regard it as an “opportunity to better understand” others, and who advocates that great and powerful nations “must be adults in world affairs”.

Here is a future US defense secretary who believes that the conflicts of the future “are beyond the control of any great power” and unlikely to involve unilateral US action”; and who estimates that the defense department that he is going to run “in many ways has become bloated” and “in many ways… the Pentagon needs to be pared down”.

Shedding timidity

That is to say, prima facie, Hagel is an odd choice as the defense secretary if the conventional wisdom holds good that US foreign policy is driven by that country’s military-industrial complex and the pervasive lobbies that work out of Washington, and is indeed embedded deep within American imperialism.

So, where is the real departure – or, is there a departure at all? The answer to the question lies in Obama’s political personality. Obama has been a proponent of “soft power”, but being a consummate politician, he proved to be a pragmatic president in his first term, surrounding himself with advisers such as Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross, and Robert Gates, whom he knew very well to be by no means his soul mates sharing the beliefs he boldly professed – on the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay, and so forth – while being an aspirant for the Oval Office.

Looking back, Obama picked up the threads on many issues where Bush left them, and he coolly abandoned some of his own campaign promises.

Suffice to say, the nomination of Hagel harks back to the “audacity of hope” that Obama famously held out in the run up to his unceremonious entry as an outsider into national politics in the US. The big question today is: Are we about to witness the real beginning of the Obama era in US foreign policy?

A good case can be made that Obama is breaking out of the image of timidity that somehow came to be associated with the foreign policy he pursued in the first term as president. Of course, to be fair to him, the lurking suspicion was always there that as a clever politician he deliberately chose not to follow his instincts during his first term as president in order to get re-elected. To be sure, he ended up disappointing his admirers (home and abroad) and supporters – and at times vindicated his detractors – but then, it is never an easy balance to strike between value-based politics and the politics of expediency.

Arguably, a combination of the difficult circumstances within the US and the complexities of the emerging world order would now enable Obama to settle on a style of leadership, finally, that is value-based and accords to his beliefs and convictions. Meanwhile, liberated from the exigencies of having to fight for another public office, he is also largely free to follow his instincts without inhibitions. Obama being a gifted intellectual with a strong sense of history would also have his eyes cast on his presidential legacy as the helmsman at this defining moment in his country’s future.

Obama is acutely aware of the rise of other leading states on the international arena and is conscious of the growing limits to the US’s dominant military might in the international system. On the other hand, as he never tires of admitting, he is a great patriot who is a passionate believer in the ideas of American exceptionalism, and in the US’s destiny as a world leader. Without doubt, therefore, he will continue to uphold American interests and seek to relentlessly perpetuate the US’s lead role in world affairs, although his methods may vary.

A powerful signal

However, it may not necessarily be up to Obama to set his foreign-policy compass, given the volatility of the international environment and the forces of history that are at work today. In sum, he is going to be as much a “victim” of events overseas as a navigator.

Take the Iran problem, for example. Reaching a grand bargain with Iran may seem a low-hanging fruit (which it is) – ensuring that Tehran doesn’t pursue a nuclear weapon program in return for Washington lifting the onerous economic sanctions – but it overlooks that there are entrenched interest groups on both sides, including among some of the US’s key allies in the region, who would continue to thwart any attempts by him to unfreeze US-Iran ties.

Again, ending the crisis is Syria may seem a deceptively simple matter of working out a deal with Russia and of the US exercising self-restraint by refraining from directly involving in fighting the war. But on the contrary, the eruption of sectarian schism in that country may already have let loose demons that could prove to be difficult to control even with the best of intentions in Moscow and Washington.

Similarly, the Arab Spring is yet in its early stages, and already the palpable reality staring the world in the face is that the US is barely coping with the treacherous flow of events.

Clearly, the will to end the Afghan war is undeniably there, but then, the challenge of reassuring a problematic Pakistan and cajoling it to relinquish its long-held objective of gaining “strategic depth” and to give up the support for the Taliban as a hedge to ward off Indian influence in Kabul as the US role wanes is a formidable one, with no clear prospects of an agreeable end result in view, although the withdrawal of US combat troops is scheduled to be completed within the year.

Yet, imagine, all these troubling questions are also closely linked one way or another to the US’s discourse with the Muslim world. Moving further on, the expert opinion happens to be that US relations with China and Russia may be heading for a rough patch. The US’s “rebalancing” to Asia; its propensity to get involved in China’s territorial disputes and its support of democratic advances; Obama’s own “Asia Pivot Tour” soon after the November election – Beijing no doubt sees them all as provocative.

Similarly, Obama needs to reinvent the “reset” with Russia, but whether he feels the urge to strike a productive relationship with President Vladimir Putin – as he apparently struck with former president and now prime minister Dmitry Medvedev – remains in doubt.

The high probability is that although Obama has promised “more flexibility” with Russia on the thorny issue of missile defense after his re-election, the US administration would still continue to engage Russia only selectively on pressing issues of concern to the US while otherwise by and large ignoring Russia. On its part, Moscow seems to be keeping its fingers crossed as to the prospects for a real breakthrough in the increasingly acrimonious US-Russia discourse during Obama’s second term.

Thus, on balance, it all but seems likely that the more things appear to change, the more they might remain the same. But that will be a gross simplification of the powerful signal Obama has chosen to send by selecting two Vietnam veterans for the two key cabinet posts of secretaries of state and defense – John Kerry and Hagel.

Obama is signaling much more than a new leadership style of using more carrots than sticks, more ideas and persuasion than threats and sanctions, more “soft power” than “smart power”. The bottom line is that now that he won’t be running again, Obama enjoys far greater space and flexibility than during the past four years to really test a values-based foreign policy approach that relies on negotiations.

Monday’s short walk with Hagel is long enough to recall who Obama used to be – and could still turn out to be.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


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