Obama’s National Security Nominations: Nothing to See Here

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy I. ALLEN and J. FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The deluge of reports that are flooding the news media about the national security nominations of United States President Barack Obama is both natural and understandable. The Departments of State and Defense, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, are among the critical components of the American government, especially in matters of foreign policy. Yet much of the commentary on the nominations of John Kerry for State, Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon, and John Brennan for the CIA, is unduly over-dramatizing what is essentially a routine story. To begin with, it is clear that, in selecting Kerry, Hagel and Brennan for the nominations, the President’s priority was to surround himself with people he knows and trusts. Knowledgeable observers point out that all three nominees come from Obama’s most trusted circle of friends and —if appointed— will allow the President to stay well “within his comfort zone” as he begins his second term in office. In this sense, Obama selected the three candidates, not with some major policy shift in mind, but in order to ensure continuity and permanence in his foreign policy.

Take John Brennan, for instance: an Arabic-speaking career officer in the CIA, who has served the Agency in various positions for over 25 years. It is undeniable that, since 2008, Brennan has been instrumental in shaping the thinking behind the Obama administration’s targeted killings program using unmanned drones. According to some analysts, he has been the White House’s “most important adviser for shaping the campaign of drone strikes”. As intelNews explained recently, Washington’s unmanned drone program will continue and most likely expand, but this has little to do with Brennan. As an excellent analysis of Brennan’s nomination (by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko) points out, the CIA’s targeted killing program “has become institutionalized” with a momentum of its own, which ensures its sustainability, “making it far bigger than any one person —even John Brennan”.

Another example in point is the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. A lot has been made of his allegedly “antagonistic stance” on Israel. One supposed example is his call in for an immediate end to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. The Republican Senator said at the time that “the sickening slaughter on both sides must end and it must end now” and called on then-President George W. Bush to work “for an immediate cease-fire [because] this madness must stop”. He also opined that, although America’s “relationship with Israel is special and historic […] it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships”. Two years later, Hagel told an interviewer that he respected the activities of the pro-Israel lobby in the US, but that he was obligated to vote in Congress in accordance to America’s national interest, since “I’m not an Israeli Senator. I am a United States Senator”.

Putting aside the issue of why these comments should be considered anti-Israeli, rather than pro-American, the question is what do Hagel’s comments have to do with American foreign policy? Even if we were to accept that Hagel is somehow “anti-Israel”, anyone who thinks that nearly seven decades of American policy on Israel are about to change because Hagel is suspicious of the Israeli lobby in the US, grossly misunderstands the institutional character of American foreign policy. The latter does not change in radical shifts; it evolves over long periods as a result of varying national or economic interests, changing conditions or the ground, or popular pressure. There is no question that Hagel, like Obama himself, is skeptical about military intervention abroad; but this fact points to continuity, not a radical shift in the administration’s policy. If Hagel’s nomination is approved by Congress, his views on Israel, or for that matter any other country or group of countries, will form but one element in a multitude of competing interests that help shape American foreign policy.

President Obama’s national security nominations are certainly noteworthy. But there is little here that is earth shattering. For the most part, the President sought individuals who will help him sustain the foreign policy of his first term in office, not radically alter it. Anyone looking for drama in these nominations will sooner or later be thoroughly disappointed.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

2 Responses to Obama’s National Security Nominations: Nothing to See Here

  1. S says:

    I have to respectfully disagree that Brennan represents the continuation of the new status quo at the Agency. Since 9/11 the CIA has primarily become a counterterrorist organization, and under the Obama administration, the CT strategy seems to be based upon killing as many suspected terrorists (or people acting like terrorists). While admittedly these shortsighted CT method, was shaped by Brennan, he also sees the flaws in how the CIA is now operating as a paramilitary organization, The Washington Post has stated that he wishes to see drone strikes conducted by the military (probably JSOC), while the CIA focuses on its traditional roles of intelligence collection and analysis. Even if the drone program isn’t divorced from the Agency, Brennan plans on making the process used to kill terrorists more transparent (which will hopefully lead to an end to the shameful “signature strikes”). I disagree with the CFR’s, Mr. Zenko, as while the drone program would be hard to divorce from the Agency, it isn’t “institutionalized” — day-today life in the CIA/CTC is shaped by “targeting”, a discipline that is currently being used to mark terrorists for execution, but can also simply be used to find terrorists and put them on a JSOC kill list. The drone program would still exist, just not under the auspices of the CIA.When counter-terrorism adviser to the President, he job was to advise the President on, and shape on his behalf, CT policy. He had no prerogative to affect the changes he saw fit withing the Agency. But when he becomes D/CIA, he will, and hopefully he will use it to restore the CIA into something other than the President’s personal Murder Inc. At any rate, he will do more to make the CIA an intelligence gathering/analysis organization and less of a terrorist-killing machine than his predecessor, Petreaus, an outsider from the military (while Brennan spent 25 years in the CIA) who would probably have only seen the CIA as an instrument to perform “kinetic strikes” on terror targets.

  2. intelNews says:

    @S: You are not alone in having issues with the Agency’s “signature” drone strikes. This blog and I personally adopted a critical position of this method early on, when most intelligence observers were silent about on issue. In regards to Brennan’s nomination: your post acknowledges that Brennan is one of the architects of the CIA’s Predator drone program. Thinking logically, if he now becomes the head of the agency, this will lead to a continuation of this policy, since both he and the President are in favor of the program. So no change in policy, unless there is something there that we are not seeing. [IA]

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