A debate on strategy


P resident Obama’s choices for his national security team could help him consolidate some of the signature policies he developed in his first term, from his strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan to his dependence on drone strikes in the fight against al-Qaida. They will raise important questions about others, including his stated determination to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon by military means if necessary. Consequently, the confirmation hearings of Chuck Hagel for the Defense Department, John Brennan for CIA director and John F. Kerry for the State Department could provide a needed debate on the direction of U.S. national security policy — provided that senators can avoid distractions.

Chief among the distractions would be charges that Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, is hostile to Israel or even anti-Semitic. There is no serious evidence to support either allegation. Certainly Hagel’s views about the Middle East have often been outside the mainstream — except on the Iraq war, where he was anything but the savant the White House describes.

The real issues raised by Hagel’s nomination are his past support for a quick-as-possible withdrawal from Afghanistan, a further downsizing of what he described as a “bloated” Pentagon and his resistance to foreign interventions.

To a large degree, these views are shared by Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran, and coincide with Obama’s plans for his second term. So the Senate ought to explore and debate their potential benefits and risks. Can defense spending sustain large cuts beyond the more than a half-trillion dollars Obama sliced during his first term? Can Afghanistan avoid another civil war if U.S. troops are rapidly withdrawn in favor of a minimal stay-behind force — or none at all? Is it wise for the United States to remain passive as the civil war in Syria intensifies and threatens to spread to its neighbors?

Then there is the challenge of Iran: In contrast to Obama, Hagel has suggested that containment of an Iranian nuclear weapon could be an acceptable policy, and he has opposed both military action and unilateral U.S. sanctions. In Tehran, his appointment might be taken as evidence that the Obama administration would not act if Iran refused to brake its steps toward a bomb. But is it? Or would Hagel support the president’s choice of military measures if negotiations fail?

We argued Hagel was not the best choice for defense secretary because of his views on the budget and Iran, and because superior candidates were available. We’ve also made the case that the administration’s current strategy of countering al-Qaida in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with drone attacks is unsustainable. The architect of that policy is Brennan, who as the White House’s counterterrorism czar has overseen and personally approved kill lists for drones.

To his credit, Brennan has reportedly resisted efforts by the Pentagon to expand targeting lists in Yemen and has insisted that attacks center on al-Qaida activists who pose a direct threat to the United States. The strikes are certainly legal under U.S. and international law, yet the secrecy with which the target lists are drawn up, and the strikes’ frequent execution by the CIA rather than military forces, are problematic — as is the political backlash they have caused in Pakistan.

Brennan’s prospective move to the CIA offers Congress the opportunity to reconsider and adjust the drone program. A central question is whether drone strikes and other paramilitary action should continue to be a CIA responsibility.

A larger question is whether Obama’s combination of troop withdrawals, non-interventionism and the heavy use of drones will protect U.S. interests in the roiling Middle East. Brennan has said drone attacks alone will not end the threat of al-Qaida; policies that bolster fragile governments like that of Yemen, and prevent the disintegration of others — think Iraq or Pakistan — are also needed.

Presidents are entitled to have their Cabinet picks confirmed if they are qualified, and nothing disqualifying has emerged about these three. But their confirmation hearings offer an opportunity for the Senate to weigh Obama’s strategy. It’s certainly tempting to think that the United States can withdraw all but a few thousand troops from Afghanistan, stand on the sidelines in Syria, contain Iran with U.N.-approved sanctions, pivot U.S. resources to Asia and ward off any lingering terrorist menace with drones. Whether that is a realistic strategy for Obama’s second term ought to be the overriding subject of the upcoming hearings.