Whether or not Chuck Hagel gets confirmed as Secretary of Defense is almost secondary at this point, because news that President Obama intends to nominate the former Senator already sends an important signal to the Middle East and throughout the world.
When he first ran for president in 2008, Obama promised to increase engagement with U.S. enemies, including Iran. But pretty soon, the strategy hit reality. Months into his presidency, Iran orchestrated a brutal crackdown on citizens protesting a rigged election. Iran had no real interest in talks with the U.S. Eventually, Obama reluctantly backed stronger sanctions against Iran, but only after they received unanimous support in the U.S. Senate. The prospect of diplomatic engagement accomplished nothing, other than to buy the radical Islamic regime more time to work on its nuclear program.
Hagel is a strong proponent of engagement and opponent of sanctions, as Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, who broke the news that Obama was going to appoint Hagel, has detailed. He has opposed isolating North Korea and urged talks with the murderous Syrian regime. As Senator, Hagel refused to sign onto a letter designating Hezbollah a terrorist group. In a 2008 interview, he explained why he didn’t cooperate with the practice of pro-Israel groups getting Senators to sign letters, and complained that, “the Jewish Lobby intimidates a lot of people.” Yet in 2009, he had no problem signing on to a letter asking Obama to open up talks with the terrorist group Hamas.
It’s true that ultimately, policy is dictated by the president and during his presidency, Obama has insisted that all options would remain on the table when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But such statements are only meaningful if they are viewed as credible threats. If Iran’s leaders believe that the U.S. may actually use military force, they’re more likely to take that into account when calculating whether to move ahead with their nuclear program, and it’s less likely that any military action would be necessary. But if Iran doesn’t think America would act, the deterrent value in saying all options on the table erodes. Whether or not Hagel actually gets confirmed, the fact that Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense is somebody who is on the record saying that military action against Iran “is not a viable, feasible, responsible option,” who has opposed sanctions, and who has called for more engagement, sends an important signal all by itself. Unfortunately, that signal is a green light for Iran to race toward the creation of a nuclear bomb.
By risking a huge confirmation battle to choose Hagel (something he wouldn’t do for Susan Rice) a reelected Obama has extended his arm and pointed his middle finger at the pro-Israel community in America, much to the delight of those who believe that U.S. foreign policy is too reflexively pro-Israel. In that sense, the nomination is also a clarifying moment for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He now knows that he cannot trust Obama’s assurances on Iran, and any decision regarding Iran’s nuclear program is going to have to be made on the assumption that Israel is on its own. Even if Hagel’s nomination falters in the Senate, the message has been sent.