Washington is abuzz with speculation about whether defense hawks’ opposition will derail the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary. The Nebraska Republican is under fire for his reluctance to consider military action against Iran and his past disparaging remarks against the “Jewish lobby.” But 82 percent of National Journal’s National Security Insiders support his confirmation.
“Senator Hagel showed political courage in breaking with his political party on the Iraq war after it began to be mismanaged. He helped Americans better grasp the risks of this conflict, and history has shown he was right,” one Insider said. “As chair of the Atlantic Council, the senator has vigorously supported NATO, building confidence among U.S. allies and among Americans who are skeptical of isolationism. [He] will be a centrist and admirably independent-minded voice at the helm of the Defense Department.”
Another Insider, though, lamented that Hagel’s “great sin” is “having learned something from the Iraq disaster and admitted it.”
“There are lots of foreign policy dissidents in the GOP, but few speak up for fear of the neocons,” the Insider said. “Hagel’s survival would represent glasnost on the right. The Senate should act like grown-ups and tell those smearing Hagel to sit down and shut up.”
Hagel, President Obama’s top choice for the position, is pro-Israel and “sensibly cautious” about Iran, another Insider said. “The extremities of the Israeli lobby have picked the wrong target and risk serious blowback.”
However, 18 percent of the Insiders polled oppose his confirmation. “While his service as an enlisted man in Vietnam was, by all accounts, exceptional, there are significant deficiencies in his understanding of the big strategic picture that would cause me concern,” one Insider said. “He was wrong about the Iraq surge and his failure to vote for sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard calls into question his higher-level judgments.”
Hagel’s appointment would send the message that Washington is reluctant to use force to back up its diplomacy with Tehran, another Insider said. “Only an Iran that believes the U.S. is willing to use force will be willing to compromise. The paradox is that a Hagel appointment could ultimately increase the chances that the U.S. or Israel will feel compelled to use military force against Iran’s nuclear program.”
Separately, an overwhelming 87 percent of Insiders wanted to see John Brennan, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, confirmed as CIA director — a sign that his prospects for confirmation may be higher than they were four years ago, when he withdrew his name from consideration amid controversy over his past service in the George W. Bush administration.
“There is no one better qualified and with a closer relationship with the president. If the agency wants a leader who has juice with the West Wing, John’s the perfect choice,” one Insider said. Brennan, over his three-decade career, has displayed skills in intelligence analysis and operations — and earned the president's trust, another Insider said. “Brennan has shown sensitivity to the risks of drone attacks.”
But a 13 percent faction strongly opposes his confirmation. “Torture, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, kill lists,” one Insider said. “All without a shred of oversight. Should I go on?”
“Brennan has been the administration’s architect and most enthusiastic supporter of the Obama doctrine: Encircle the world with drones and target anyone, including Americans, placed on a secret CIA kill list (and justified by secret laws),” another Insider said. “With Brennan at the CIA, the policy will no doubt expand. Instead, the CIA needs someone who can return the agency to its original purpose—recruit spies, gather intelligence, and analyze it without political influence.”
Some Insiders who said Hagel and Brennan should be confirmed, however, were not altogether pleased with the possibility of their accessions. “These are disappointing choices. The president … has chosen badly,” an Insider said, “but he deserves to have the people he wants to have in these positions.”
1. Should Chuck Hagel be confirmed as secretary of Defense?
- Yes 82%
- No 18%
"His forthright and insightful views on foreign and security policy, especially where possible military force is involved, are sorely needed in Washington. And his confirmation will be a much-needed blow against the benighted forces who are opposing him."
"But he should be pressed hard on the drawdown and management challenges the Defense Department faces."
"Presidents should be granted their selections for Cabinet secretaries unless extremely derogatory information is uncovered that would hinder the secretaries' ability to perform their duties. It is the president's national security and foreign policy, not the secretaries', that is implemented."
"Obama showed uncharacteristic political courage in nominating Hagel in the face of the usual obnoxious and slanderous comments from the pro-Israel extremists."
"Senator Hagel has the trust and confidence of the president, which is an essential quality for a successful secretary of Defense."
"Hagel should be confirmed, which is of course a separate question from why the Democrats once again felt compelled to punt on the issue of national security by giving this post to the other party. The last time the Republicans nominated a Democrat to the War/Defense Department? Abe Lincoln. Seriously."
"Assuming he can satisfy concerns regarding his view of what to cut in the defense budget (e.g., defense health, OK; ships and aircraft, not OK); his views regarding the size and speed of withdrawal from Afghanistan (faster and more if no [Status of Forces Agreement], less if one is negotiated); his views about next steps on Iran and recognition of Hamas."
"President has a right to pick his team unless personal or ethical flaws. Trumped-up opposition stems from neocons who want to attack Iran without thinking as they did [with] Iraq 10 years ago."
"Hagel is OK — still, giving out the big jobs to long-in-the-tooth senators and former senators is not a good idea."
"Hagel is something we haven't seen at DOD in decades — someone of the establishment who is not enslaved by the conventional wisdom. The politicized criticism creates a dangerous precedent for nominees for national security posts."
"With rare exceptions, the Senate should honor the president's Cabinet choices."
"This is a no-brainer — he should be confirmed unanimously.… Hagel has all the right credentials to be the secretary of Defense, and he will bring a different perspective into the administration's deliberations of defense policy."
"Hagel comes from the school of foreign policy that Republicans used to be able to display proudly — including during elections. Those opposing him should ask why the GOP hasn't been able to talk about foreign policy in a winning way in the last two presidential elections."
"The Republicans are embarrassing themselves by pushing objections to his nomination that are without substance."
"Soft on Iran and soft on terrorism. Sends the wrong messages at a critical time."
"Just because he served doesn't make him qualified to lead,… and in this case, someone who is so out of touch with winning strategies in the war on terror (Exhibit 1: the surge) should not be leading DOD."
"While his service as an enlisted man in Vietnam was, by all accounts, exceptional, there are significant deficiencies in his understanding of the big strategic picture that would cause me concern. He was wrong about the Iraq surge and his failure to vote for sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard calls into question his higher-level judgments."
"Hagel is not the right man for the job right now. Given the sensitive state of relations with Iran, his appointment sends exactly the wrong message: that the U.S. is reluctant or unwilling to use force to back up its diplomacy with Tehran. Only an Iran that believes the U.S. is willing to use force will be willing to compromise. The paradox is that a Hagel appointment could ultimately increase the chances that the U.S. or Israel will feel compelled to use military force against Iran's nuclear program."
2. Should John Brennan be confirmed as CIA director?
- Yes 87%
- No 13%
"Well-qualified and confidante of the president."
"Yes, if the president wants a CIA 'insider' as its head. Having assumed leadership roles as both an 'insider' and an 'outsider,' I can attest that there are advantages and disadvantages to both. At this juncture, the CIA could benefit from Brennan's experiences, but he has to be careful to remember that not every intelligence problem is a counterterrorism problem."
"Brennan understands the president's priorities and how he thinks. He will reflect that at CIA."
"Consummate professional and has the trust of the president. Will guide CIA to appropriate role."
"An accomplished insider."
"The better choice would have been Jane Harman."
"While an operator may neglect analysis, and my own view is that the CIA needs to beef up its analytic role. Brennan is more than qualified for the post."
"No one better qualified, and he has certainly earned it."
"Competent, professional, good judgment."
"While it is important for a CIA director to be personally connected to the president, Brennan is too closely connected to counterterrorism efforts — potentially driving the agency even further from its needed (and somewhat neglected) role as America's chief spy service."
"Unfortunately, during his time as one of the president's top national security advisers, Brennan operated like a political mouthpiece and advocated for pre-9/11-like policies, treating terrorism like a law-enforcement issue, a dangerous bent for the head of our CIA."
"John Brennan has been the administration’s architect and most enthusiastic supporter of the Obama doctrine: Encircle the world with drones and target anyone, including Americans, placed on a secret CIA kill list (and justified by secret laws). As study after study has shown, targeted assassinations only create more terrorists, and with Brennan at the CIA, the policy will no doubt expand. Instead, the CIA needs someone who can return the agency to its original purpose — recruit spies, gather intelligence, and analyze it without political influence. Drones will never prevent another 9/11 or a 'slam dunk' decision to go into Iraq. But good intelligence might."
"Torture, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, kill lists. All without a shred of oversight. Should I go on?"
"What has changed since 2009 that he can be confirmed now but could not four years ago?"
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.