The Presidency

12.27.12

What Hagel tells us about Obama

Nobody knows more about US Middle East policy than Aaron David Miller. And he rates the debate over possible Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's Middle East views as … one big distraction.

Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran sanctions: Much has been made of Hagel's views on other matters -- talking to Hamas, changing tack on Hezbollah, and questioning the value of sanctions against Iran. On all these issues, Hagel's views are out of synch with current U.S. policy. I disagree with the former senator on all three (and make no mistake, should the nomination move ahead, he'll be pressed on all three).

But we're kidding ourselves if we think Chuck Hagel will be in a position to influence the debate on any of them. As I've written elsewhere, Barack Obama is the most withholding and controlling U.S. president on foreign policy since Richard Nixon. All power on the big and sensitive issues flows in and out of the White House, as John Kerry will discover too. Obama dominates; he doesn't delegate. Don't like what Hagel has to say on Hamas? Not to worry. Unhappy about his views on sanctions? Never mind. His views on this and other matters won't count for much.

… [W]hat's so intriguing about the Hagel business is that it seems to be part of a broader story. Rarely, if ever, has a president had his top two national security cabinet picks opposed so vehemently before they were even nominated. Susan Rice was forced to withdraw; the same fate may well await Chuck Hagel.

If the White House does pull the plug on Hagel -- the not-quite-yet and maybe-never nominee -- all kinds of conclusions will be drawn. Some will blame it on the necons and the pro-Israel lobby; others will wonder why the White House didn't do a better job of looking at the former senator's past statements or question why Obama caved and didn't do a Tammy Wynette-style "Stand by Your Man" routine.

For me, the main takeaway of this episode is that a popular second-term president -- one of only 17 in U.S. history -- just isn't as influential as some would like to believe. Even in an area -- national security -- where he's supposed to be fully in command.