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What Obama's Senate Mafia Means for America What Obama's Senate Mafia Means for America

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What Obama's Senate Mafia Means for America

With Chuck Hagel's likely nomination for Defense secretary and John Kerry's at State, the president is gathering his old Senate 'Team of Mentors' back together.


Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks on the subject of Iran, during a keynote address at the James E. Smith Conference on World Affairs, at the University of Nebraska,Kearney, in Kearney, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

In the summer of 2008, while the two of them were on a trip to Afghanistan, then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., gave a bit of advice to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. "I told Obama he should pick [Joe] Biden as his running mate," Hagel recalled in a 2010 interview with National Journal. "I said, 'He understands governance better than anyone else. In particular, he understands Congress. He understands how it fits together like no one else you could get. He's got the political piece. He 's got the policy piece. There's nobody in his league.'"

On Aug. 25 of that year, Obama did indeed name Biden as his vice presidential nominee. The move surprised many people. But apparently not Hagel.


On Monday, Hagel is expected to be named President Obama's Defense secretary, replacing Leon Panetta, while John Kerry , D-Mass., another old Obama colleague from the Senate who has influenced the president's thinking on Afghanistan (as have Hagel and Biden), was recently nominated to be secretary of State. Both choices were no doubt heartily approved by Biden, who has become one of the most powerful and influential vice presidents ever, even by his own testimony. "I literally get to be the last guy in the room with the president," Biden said in a speech in 2012. "That's our arrangement."

During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama spoke of his admiration for President Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” approach to picking his Cabinet, referring to the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obama later selected his No. 1 Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as his secretary of State. But what Obama is now assembling is more of a Team of Mentors, a group of old lions of the Senate who, along with Biden, helped to shape Obama's worldview during his brief stint as a freshman senator before he ran for president.

It's difficult to say for certain what this will mean for Obama's second-term foreign and defense policy, but some broad themes stand out. Kerry and Hagel, a generation older than Obama, are both Vietnam veterans who were, by their own admission, haunted by that experience; both are known for their prudence and judiciousness in the use of force (Hagel even came out against Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan, while Kerry supported it). Both will likely stand fully with Obama’s scaling-down of American military commitments abroad, and with his extreme stringency in applying U.S. military power in new crisis spots such as Libya and Syria. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s former policy-planning chief, told me last summer, Obama knows the American public is “heartily tired” of the “freedom agenda” approach to foreign policy that extended from Ronald Reagan through the second Bush administration, with Bill Clinton an occasional reluctant participant in humanitarian situations like Bosnia and Kosovo. “This is a guy who’s not going to waste our money and risk the lives of American soldiers unless he absolutely has to,” she said.  Kerry and Hagel are acutely aware of this as well; both hew closely to Powell Doctrine thinking about restraint in the use of hard power; both will probably counsel extreme caution in most trouble spots, with a wild-card possibility of bold new action in other areas, for example Mideast peacemaking.


For Obama’s second term, that suggests that any future "Obama doctrine" will also be a Kerry-Hagel-Biden doctrine. We will likely see something close to the status quo on Iran's sanctions policy,  and Obama's mix of tough realpolitik and engagement toward China. Interestingly, however, both Kerry and Hagel are also men who've fallen somewhat into eclipse with something to prove. In Hagel's case, the onetime GOP star found himself persona non grata in his party after his fierce opposition to the Iraq invasion and later the surge. As Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Kerry has had to claw his way back to respectability in the  Democratic Party after his humiliating loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential race, a defeat made all the more embarrassing by the "Swift-boating" attacks Kerry endured over his record as a war hero in Vietnam.

Kerry, a traditionalist who likes to get his hands dirty with direct mediation, played an invaluable role in bringing Hamid Karzai along in Afghanistan long after other key envoys, including Richard Holbrooke, had given up on the Afghan president. He’ll likely continue overseeing Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Hagel’s firm support; both men will probably also advocate a more forthright U.S. role in pressuring the Israelis and Palestinians toward new peace talks, and play key roles in overseeing transition in Syria and continuing to isolate Iran.

In Kerry and Hagel, Obama likely sees two statesmen who largely share his views and will be eager to follow up on his first-term foreign-policy theme: the "restoration of the United States' prestige and power in the world" after the Bush administration, in the words of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon (a former Biden aide). "We came in after an exhausting time for foreign policy and a huge expenditure of capital," Donilon said at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School on Nov. 28. Hagel, especially, has inveighed for years against military over-extension abroad. And the description that Donilon gave in his speech sounds like it could have been recycled from many of Hagel's and Kerry's own discussions about building cooperative military arrangements and engaging diplomatically. Donilon described the strategy of recovering from the Bush years as five-pronged: rebuild the U.S. economy; repair alliances frayed by Bush's unilateralism; fix neglected "great-power" relationships with Russia and China; shift focus from the Mideast, "where we were over-invested" (read: Bush went too far in invading Iraq), to East Asia; and pull together new groupings of nations--for example, including India, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey--to solve future problems of global governance.

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