What Obama's cabinet choices say about his second-term foreign policy

Expect a less militarized approach to America's dealings with the rest of the world

Daniel Larison

The Obama administration's top foreign policy and national security appointments are taking shape, with the nomination last Friday of Sen. John Kerry to be secretary of state, and the likely forthcoming nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. In many respects, the selections of Kerry and Hagel represent continuity with the foreign policy and national security decisions of the administration's first term. But they may also hint at a slightly less aggressive and possibly less militarized U.S. approach to its dealings with the rest of the world. Both Kerry and Hagel are committed internationalists. They are both lodged firmly within the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and national security. Still, each has demonstrated in the past a valuable willingness to challenge aspects of that consensus.

Kerry and Hagel have distinguished themselves in recent years with their support for U.S. diplomatic engagement abroad, including with pariah states and other major powers. Kerry supported the Obama administration's efforts to repair relations with Russia, which yielded modest but real benefits for the U.S. In his capacity as chairman of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has defended the value of engagement for furthering U.S. interests, and supported engagement with Iran during his time in the Senate. It would be a mistake to think of either of them as doves, but in recent years they have been much more interested in advancing U.S. goals without constantly falling back on military options or threats of the same.

Because of his occasional criticisms of Israel, skepticism about military action against Iran, and opposition to Iran sanctions during his career in the Senate, Hagel has been under a steady assault of character assassination and misrepresentation from hawkish Republicans who are increasingly desperate to derail Hagel's nomination before it happens. But make no mistake: Despite the unprecedented smear campaign directed against Sen. Hagel over the last two weeks, he remains the most likely nominee for the defense post. Hagel's confirmation hearings will be more difficult and contentious than anything Kerry will have to face. But it also seems very unlikely that there are enough senators in both parties prepared to deny him confirmation once Obama formally selects him. While Hagel's detractors are very energized and vocal, they do not seem to be in a position to prevent him from being confirmed. What these detractors evidently hope to do is discourage Obama from nominating him in the first place.

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Both Kerry and Hagel have served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They would also be the first pair of combat veterans at their respective positions serving at the same time since the Reagan administration. After over a decade of foreign wars, it would be a welcome change for the civilians responsible for implementing U.S. foreign policy and overseeing its military to be warier of entangling the U.S. in armed conflicts than their predecessors have been. There is always the possibility that President Obama might be seeking political cover for more aggressive policies towards Iran, for example, by choosing Kerry and Hagel, but it seems more likely that both will be advocates inside the administration for avoiding unnecessary conflicts.

Kerry has been a reliable supporter of Obama's foreign policy priorities, and he was responsible for shepherding the recent arms reduction treaty (New START) through the Senate ratification process. His appointment suggests that the administration will pursue many of the same priorities as it did during the first term, but it will have an even more experienced secretary of state to carry out the agenda. Kerry may also be able to help repair some of the frayed relations with other major powers that have been strained over the last two years.

As an admirer of President Eisenhower, Hagel could prove to be an important proponent of reduced military spending at the Pentagon. As a critic of the "surge" in Iraq and President Obama's decision to send additional forces to Afghanistan, Hagel would be unlikely to support prolonging a large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Instead of having a defense secretary warning against "devastating" cuts to the military budget, as he does now, Obama would have someone willing to find where reductions in spending could be made. The country would be well-served by Hagel's nomination to the post.

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