Obama's Appointments

01.10.13

Obama Should Heed Hagel's Doubts About Iran Attack

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offered today a sensible defense of Barack Obama's pick for Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel. After listing some of Hagel's credentials and their suitability to today's challenges, Kristof took a moment to lament the attacks by Bret Stephens and Elliott Abrams deeming the defense pick an anti-Semite. Then Kristof raised another issue: how Hagel's views on Iran differ slightly, though not without significance, from the Obama administration's. "As for Iran, Hagel will need to sound more hawkish in public to mesh with the administration, and it is useful for Iran to worry about a military strike. But I hope that Hagel, in private, continues to be cautious," Kristof wrote. "Obama has been painting himself in a corner so that if a nuclear deal with Tehran isn’t reached, he would have to order bombings sometime in 2013 or 2014. A skeptic at the Pentagon would be a useful addition to that debate."

Kristof's mostly right on point here, but there's more to it than the paragraph suggests. It's all fine and well that Hagel, ensconced at the Pentagon, should not depart publicly from his boss, who would at that time be President Obama. But Hagel shouldn't take a more hawkish position to "mesh" with Obama; rather Obama should take on Hagel's position: one that will not cede the availability of the military option to deal with Iran, but that in tandem publicly raises doubts about the efficacy of military force to "halt," "stop" or "prevent" Iran's nuclear progress. There's a simple explanation for why: these doubts are well-founded, and the hawkish note Obama frequently strikes is out of sync with the reality of the matter. The Obama administration should level with the public about these doubts.

This mirrors closely a mini-debate I had late last fall with the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who argued on Twitter that the press and the Congress, rather than the administration, should lead the debate about whether or not military strikes can "work"—that is, end Iran's nuclear progress rather than, as many experts believe, merely delay it and indeed spur the Iranian government to do just exactly what it's not yet done by working to bring its nuclear program to fruition (building a bomb). Then and now, I reject this argument. Neither the media nor the Congress (given Obama's military maneuverability outside the War Powers Act) will hand down the order to attack Iran. Responsibility for that move will fall to the President. Obama is the duly elected leader of this nation and on this matter he must do just as the moniker says: lead. 

There is herein a delicate balancing act: Kristof's remark that "it is useful for Iran to worry about a military strike" might be true (though some experts think "threats and coercion will be far more effective if they are implicit rather than explicit"). It may indeed be "useful," but it cannot trump the need for the nation, led by the president who will give the order, to openly discuss the possible consequences of a strike. None of this matters if the American rhetoric about keeping all options on the table is a bluff, but Obama has repudiated this notion. As such, should Iran cross American red-lines, the nation will be at war. Unlike Obama, Hagel has been at the forefront of discussing the difficulties of such an attack, and all the horrifically dangerous consequences it could entail. If Obama's serious about potentially going to war with Iran, it is he who should follow Hagel's lead, not the other way around.