Jules Witcover

President Obama's nominations of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to be his secretary of defense and John Brennan as CIA director, coupled with Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state, underline his determination to pivot from the war mentality of former President George W. Bush and his "Vulcans."

If all three are confirmed by the Senate, the president will have in place a strong team to sustain his first-term return to a multilateral foreign policy of collective action. It comes in distinct contrast with Bush's unilateralist war of choice in Iraq, followed by his nation-building mindset there and in Afghanistan.

Kerry and Hagel initially voted for Bush's use-of-force resolution that authorized the invasion of Iraq. But both later opposed the implementation as failed and wrong-headed. Brennan was a less visible and outspoken intelligence bureaucrat but was embroiled in arguments over the use of questionable interrogation procedures against war detainees.

The trio's nominations, and particularly those of the two Senate alumni, signal Obama's intention to avoid the foreign policy adventurism of the junior Bush years that veered increasingly to talk of spreading democracy to the Middle East. That impulse has been notably restrained in Obama's guarded response to the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria.

The president's limited commitment of air support but no ground troops in the British-and French-led effort to depose Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, along with the gradual but declared intention to withdraw the bulk of American forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan by 2014, are signposts of the Obama pivot.

The president in 2010 did yield to his generals' pressure and accede to a Bush-like surge of combat troops into Afghanistan. However, he has also adhered so far, though at a slower pace than anticipated, to his 2008 presidential campaign promise to end American participation in the two Middle East wars.

His appointment of Kerry, seasoned in foreign policy as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, should sail easily through Senate confirmation. Hagel's nomination, on the other hand, encountered heavy fire from Republicans even before it was announced, based on some comments offensive to gays and to avid supporters of Israel. He faces a raucous confirmation fight.

Still, Obama, having avoided a battle with the decision not to offer the nomination of UN Ambassador Susan Rice for the State Department, has the opportunity in the Hagel nomination to demonstrate his willingness to take on the Republican opposition. It shapes up as a fight that can be central to his efforts to curb what Hagel once called "bloated" defense spending.

As the first enlisted Army combat veteran (in the Vietnam War) to run the Pentagon, Hagel has insulation from suggestions that his views on a cautious approach to military entanglements hint at timidity. Yet the fact that he is a registered Republican isn't likely to offer him much of a shield from critical party colleagues. They will be casting an eagle eye on how he addresses the nearly $500 billion in defense cuts facing the Pentagon over the next decade.

The previous Republican who ran the Defense Department under Obama, Robert Gates, won broad bipartisan support in Congress but was much less outspoken on controversial issues than Hagel has been. In 2007, the Nebraskan was being mentioned earlier as a possible running mate for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a third-party ticket, but Hagel disavowed interest. Yet among conservative Republicans, Hagel has always been regarded with a good dose of suspicion.

If confirmed, he can expect to have a strong ally within the administration not only in Obama, with whom he has traveled abroad, but also with Vice President Joe Biden, with whom Hagel also made war-zone trips when they served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Biden.

As a man who marches to the beat of his own drum, having retired from the Senate under his own power, Chuck Hagel offers Obama the kind of leadership required in a presidency determined to move away from reckless foreign-policy bravado. Along with Kerry and Brennan, the Hagel nomination enhances prospects for a further return to American self-interest in dealing with conflicts abroad in the second Obama term.


© Tribune Media Services, Inc


World - Continuing a Foreign Policy Pivot | News of the World