Kerry and Hagel, Obama’s new security twins?

By J Brooks Spector 19 December 2012

It is now increasingly likely Barack Obama will appoint John Kerry as secretary of state and former Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, as successor to current Pentagon head Leon Panetta. What might this mean for the second Obama administration? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

That highly publicised Susan Rice informal, ad hoc, toe-in-the-water trial balloon for her nomination as secretary of state has now been completely deflated, even before she had even been formally nominated for the position. While the incumbent, Hillary Clinton, has yet to set a public date for her departure from the job; nevertheless, the Obama administration is well on the way to picking its candidate for this job.

It now seems almost certain to be veteran Massachusetts senator John Kerry. His candidacy would, in almost everyone’s opinion, sail through the Senate confirmation process with that notably fractious body. This would be especially true given Kerry’s long service there and his reputation in that body, as well as his history as a kind of back-room informal envoy for Barack Obama over the past four years in the Middle East and South Asia.

The son of an American diplomat, Kerry first came to national attention when he became a leader in Vietnam Veterans Against the War after his decorated military service in Vietnam on the riverine “swift boats”. After his return to the US, he testified at a contentious Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing about the conduct of the war, calling American policy the cause of “war crimes” in Vietnam.

Thereafter, Kerry went to law school and eventually became Massachusetts lieutenant governor, and then in 1984, one of the state’s two senators. Following the breakup of his first marriage, he married Teresa Heinz, the widow of a former senatorial colleague and the daughter of a Mozambican Portuguese doctor who had graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand in her earlier years. In the Senate, Kerry eventually became a vocal opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq (after initially supporting it), and in the following year he gained the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, nearly beating incumbent president George W Bush in the 2004 election.

During Obama’s first term as president, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry played a supportive role for a number of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives. In particular, these included efforts to build a more stable relationship with the Pakistani government (apparently including an understanding the US would not attempt to seize the Pakistani nuclear weapons stash) as well as with other regimes in the region. And along the way, Kerry spent hours and hours having tea and taking walks with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

By apparently settling on John Kerry as his next secretary of state, Obama has bucked an interesting, relatively little-noticed trend. Since Warren Christopher stepped down in 1997 as Clinton’s secretary of state, all subsequent secretaries have been female, African-American  – or both. It’s been Madeline Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton, right in a row, ever since Christopher.

Presidents frequently tap into a particular interest group or societal sector for certain cabinet offices – a friendly labour official or labour economist for the Department of Labour in the case of Democrats, or a leading (and supportive) business figure for Commerce. In the case of State, this roster of the past four secretaries may be indicative of something both interesting and increasingly important about the shifting composition of the policy elite in America in the past generation. If Obama had actually nominated his UN ambassador, Susan Rice, to become Clinton’s successor, he would have been following in the path set out by three previous presidents in filling the most senior cabinet office with a representative of a key constituency – or two – in addition to picking someone who has been his close foreign policy advisor since his first campaign for the presidency.

However, with the growing criticism about Rice’s performance in explaining and defending the administration’s positions on the deaths in Benghazi, Rice’s nomination as the next head of the State Department was increasingly turning into a liability rather than a plus. A confirmation battle could well have affected Obama’s objectives on other key policy fronts – most especially the difficult tax/budget/federal deficit negotiations with Republicans collectively known as the fiscal cliff. Rice then did the right thing on behalf of the administration and told the president to take her out of consideration for this job – even before she was even publicly pencilled in for it. Given her bureaucratic reputation, this may well have allowed some State Department diplomats to breathe a little easier about who their next boss would be.

More than many presidents, observers agree that Obama seems to be his own secretary of state – at least on the large-scale, grand strategy level. As a result, it may not matter all that much who succeeds Hillary Clinton in terms of decisions at the more rarefied policy heights. What the Obama administration now seems to want most is a steady, experienced hand, a calming influence, an appointee who doesn’t need an apprenticeship on policy – and one who already knows many of the world’s leaders who will he will deal with over the next several years. All of this would seem to describe Kerry to a “T”, as well as the fact that he looks like central casting’s idea of a secretary of state.

Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, the incumbent secretary, Leon Panetta, has indicated his interest in retiring so he can spend more time with his family on his California almond farm. That’s where the name Chuck Hagel may well be coming into focus for the Obama administration.

While he was in the Senate representing Nebraska, Hagel was always seen as a bit of an iconoclast – refusing to go along, lockstep, with every party position. And Hagel, like Kerry, did his military service the hard way – at the battlefront in Vietnam.

Picking Hagel would also follow through on another cabinet tradition – at least among Democrats – of picking Republicans for the Pentagon in an effort to give the feel of bipartisan, national unity on defence matters. Maine Senator William Cohen was defence secretary for part of the Clinton administration and Robert Gates’s tenure ran from the latter half of the George W Bush administration well into the first Obama administration. Hagel would play to that sensibility as well as the fact that Hagel and Obama seem to have a similar sense of limits on the exercise of American military strength and power in the years ahead.

There are, however, several potential downsides to a Hagel appointment. First is the fact that throughout his years as a senator and now with service on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, a professor at Georgetown University and chair of the Atlantic Council, he has never managed a major, complex institution. And if the American defence establishment is anything, it is a horrendously complicated bureaucratic and budgetary leviathan. Especially now and into the foreseeable future, the key task of the defence honcho will almost certainly not be the waging of war, but rather, the wielding of the budgetary scalpel – over and over and over again.

Then there is that nagging question of the ethnic/racial/gender composition of the cabinet. If Kerry and Hagel are appointed to these two positions, Obama will feel some pressure to find some good spots for good people who also provide the right balance to that overall  ethnic/racial/gender mix for top positions in his second administration.

Finally there is the potentially awkward issue that Hagel is often seen on Capitol Hill (and in Jerusalem as well) as not axiomatically lined up with those who see American and Israeli security interests as 100% identical. While this could present some questions in Congress, it might also serve as effective protective cover for Obama, as and if some hard choices need to be made in responding to future developments in the Middle East.

What a Kerry/Hagel pairing would do, of course, is provide two senior officials in the second Obama administration who are thoroughly experienced in the ways of Congress and who have years of relationships there – things that could make a difference in the difficult budgetary environment of the coming decade. These two appointments could also give Obama the flexibility and space to make more adventurous appointments at the CIA, Treasury and the other positions that will come up in the next year or so.

Oh, and if he chooses, Obama can always give Susan Rice the tasty consolation prize of national security advisor, as long as he can find something else suitable for the current incumbent, Tom Donilon. Crucially, this position is not subject to senatorial confirmation and it does require someone who is ruthless in sorting out the options and making the president’s decisions stick – even when they are bureaucratically difficult. Sounds just like Susan Rice’s ticket. DM

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Photo: John Kerry and Chuck Hagel (Reuters)


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