Smart Choices for Second Term


Frania Duarte*


Source: AP Photos

Obama’s second term started with some changes to its cabinet, two of them to key security posts. This decision may not have been so hard for Mr. Obama, but it turned out to be controversial among some republican senators who tried to prevent one of the nominees from taking office. Thus, a filibuster maneuver was carried out on Charles Hagel, the candidate to head the Pentagon, though in the end the republicans halted it and approved the nomination. In contrast, John Kerry, nominee for Secretary of State, did not have a hard time during his confirmation hearing. Why did this happen? Why was Obama interested in having Hagel in his cabinet?

The course of events has shown that to have both Hagel and Kerry in the new cabinet means to strengthen the smart power approach that Obama and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, chose to assert US influence all over the world. So it is not only their professional trajectories but also their political perspectives which make them suitable for their current positions.

Charles Hagel is a Republican Party member, former senator for Nebraska, and a Vietnam War veteran. However, being a republican does not necessarily mean to embrace every single –and maybe radical– political position GOP members come up with, especially now that the Tea Party influence has increased inside. Hagel has not turned out to be a hawk like those of the G. W. Bush era. He is certainly conscious about what the US objectives and interests are, but he does not necessarily try to achieve them only through military means –at least recently.

The time he served in Vietnam seemed to be a turning point in his life for he realized about what a war meant for both a soldier and a country. Having rescued his brother, who served in the same unit as him, he thought to himself: “If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war”. However, like Hagel has said, he did not become a pacifist ever since. Some decades later, as Senator, he voted for the Patriot Act –even for its reauthorization in 2006, and also for the S. R. 46 which authorized the use of military force against Iraq.

But after seeing the chaos that the war brought both for Iraq and the US, he decided not to support it anymore, and in 2007 he voted against the redeployment of forces. He became a prominent critic of the US role abroad, particularly for its increased willingness to use military force, and he does not agree with the preeminence the Pentagon has gained. In 2011 he said to the Financial Times that the Defense Department was “bloated” and needed “to be pared down”. He would also make some awkward statements on the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in US politics –though after he offered his apologies–, and expressed its discontent with the republican position towards the economic crisis and other crucial issues which only reached to an impasse.

So, in the end, republican senators were not happy with the idea of a critic of their policies and political positions being Secretary of Defense. They expressed their fear of a budget cut –although it was already expected as a result of the debt-ceiling agreement of 2011, and they also appeared to be concerned about the US “weak image” abroad.

On the other side, there was bipartisan agreement to approve John Kerry’s nomination. It seemed to be a little bit easier since he had a remarkable career in the Senate, particularly as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. But before becoming a politician, Kerry also knew the war firsthand since he, like Hagel, fought in Vietnam. He said he enlisted in the Navy because he thought “it was the right thing to do”, but in 1971, in a statement to the aforementioned Committee, he disagreed with the war and recognized the damage the US troops were doing to the Vietnamese. He then became a prominent critic of war, though in 2002 he voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq.

By the end of the 70’s he gained experience in the security field through dealing with organized crime during his tenure as District Attorney of Middle County, Massachusetts. Soon afterwards he ran for the Senate and would stay there until his nomination to be Secretary of State. There he made some of his greater achievements, such as the investigation that uncovered two cases of corruption: the Iran-Contra affair and the scandal of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. He has actively participated in the formulation of some contents of national security initiatives (the anti-money laundering provisions of the Patriot Act and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001) and he considers himself an advocate of the American creed abroad since he has voted to provide US assistance to countries moving towards democracy.

So, we have two Secretaries whose foreign policy positions fit in the smart power approach, which means to favor diplomacy over military use –although the latter remains as a last resort in case the former proves ineffective. Even though some may labeled them as flip-floppers (because of its position towards the 2003 Iraq war), they represent the diversity of perspectives that Obama wanted to include –and that he did incorporate– in his first term cabinet. He decided to be surrounded by experts who have different opinions on critical issues (for example, Hillary Clinton supported the Iraq war and thought it was necessary to increase severity against Iran; or Joe Biden, who authorized the Iraq war too and stood against counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan), but at the same time he has avoided them to enter in conflict and to reach a stalemate. Moreover, Obama has also known how to maintain a strong leadership so its decisional power would not end up sequestered by some of those experts, as happened to former president G. W. Bush when Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz held a great decision making power.

It seems that Obama will consolidate his smart power approach to advance US interests home and abroad. So, we may see the continuation of several policies toward critical issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hagel’s appointment tell us that the neutral position that Obama embraced toward this conflict in his 2011 MENA speech –where he called for a solution based on the 1967 borders– will be the same (in fact, Obama and Kerry visit to the Middle East last week corroborate it).

Neither these policies nor the defense budget cuts diminish US power in the world, as republicans have affirmed. In fact, at a time of economic and leadership crises, the US cannot afford to become engaged with more issues than those which are critical for its security nor to meet global challenges alone. So, in the end, the appointment of two moderated politicians, like Hagel and Kerry, to key security posts turns out to be a smart choice in such a context.


*Frania Duarte is a Research Assistant at the Center for Research on North America and a Teaching Assistant at UNAM School of Political and Social Sciences.She is also a contributor at Cuadrivio Magazine (Mexico). @franiadu



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