National Security

Bench Press

It doesn't matter that Chuck Hagel is a Republican -- or even a defense expert.

With President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, some analysts and many Democrats will bemoan the fact that a Democratic president once again needs to rely on a Republican to fill a top national security position. According to this view, the Democratic national security bench is much thinner than the Republicans'. But, since the end of World War II, presidents have often appointed members of the other party (as well as career civil servants) to key posts.

Yes, President Clinton appointed a Republican senator, William Cohen, to succeed Democratic defense intellectual William Perry as secretary of defense late in his second term. But George W. Bush kept on Clinton appointee George Tenet as his first CIA director. Likewise, right after his election, Richard Nixon offered the post of secretary of defense to Democratic Senator Henry Jackson, and the man who was eventually confirmed as secretary, Melvin Laird, kept on many Democrats, including Paul Warnke, when he took over the Pentagon. Reagan appointed former Jackson staffer Richard Perle, former Carter Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, and Democratic heavyweight Paul Nitze to key posts on his national security team.

President Obama did keep a Bush appointee, Robert Gates, on as his secretary of defense, but Gates is a career CIA officer who, as he noted repeatedly, had served under seven presidents from both parties throughout his four decades in government. Moreover, George W. Bush's first secretary of state, General Colin Powell, was a career military officer who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bill Clinton and who had actually been offered the post of secretary of state by Clinton. And Reagan appointed career Foreign Service Officer Frank Carlucci, who had served as deputy CIA director in the Carter administration, to be both deputy secretary and then secretary of defense.

Not only have presidents often gone outside their own parties to fill key national security posts, they've often gone outside the national security establishment altogether. George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state, is an economist who served in the Nixon administration as labor secretary, as head of the Office of Management and Budget, and then as treasury secretary. Reagan's secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, had also run OMB and was secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Nixon administration. In addition, one of his national security advisors, William Clark, was a judge in California.

Similarly, George H.W. Bush appointed James Baker to be his secretary of state even though Baker's previous government service was as secretary of the treasury and White House chief of staff. Moreover, when he selected Congressman Dick Cheney to run the Pentagon, Cheney had had only minimal involvement with defense matters during his time on the Hill.

Based on the criteria used by Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Democratic bench is plenty deep. President Obama could have turned to successful Democratic executives such as Secretary of Education Arnold Duncan, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, White House chief of staff and former OMB director Jack Lew, or former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers for high-level national security posts. Previous presidents have also turned to individuals from outside government with little or no background in foreign policy or partisan politics. Dwight Eisenhower selected Charles Wilson from General Motors to run the Pentagon, and John Kennedy chose Robert McNamara from Ford for the same post.

And the "deep Republican bench" did not help George W. Bush when it came to running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the three top Republicans in the Bush Pentagon -- namely Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith -- had all served previously in the Pentagon did not prevent them from messing up both wars.

But even before Hagel's nomination was made official, three Republican senators -- Tom Coburn (R-OK), Dan Coats (R-IN), and John Cornyn (R-TX) -- said they would not vote for him.

Coburn says Hagel does not have the experience to manage a large organization like the Pentagon. Leaving aside the fact that Hagel has held many private and public sector management positions, does this mean that Coburn would have voted against two of the more successful secretaries of defense who came directly from the House, namely Republicans Melvin Laird and Dick Cheney?

Coats contends that Hagel has shown much disrespect for the military. Really? He disrespects it so much that he volunteered to serve in combat, was awarded two Purple Hearts, and coauthored the 9/11 GI Bill over the opposition of the Bush administration. (Coats, by the way, was turned down for the secretary of defense post by George W. Bush after he was interviewed for the job.) Does this mean that Coats would have voted against Caspar Weinberger and Leon Panetta, who both tried to slash defense spending while running OMB?

Cornyn says he cannot vote for Hagel because of his problem with Israel. What problem? According to several retired ambassadors, flag officers, former national security advisors, a former Republican secretary of defense, and former senators from both parties, no one has been more steadfast in supporting America's commitment to Israel than Hagel. And would Cornyn have voted against James Baker, who had a problem with Israel's settlement expansion and cut off loan guarantees to the country?

Neoconservatives like William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, argue that for all these reasons the case for Hagel is extraordinarily weak. Really? Hagel has the legislative background of Cheney, Laird, and Cohen; the management experience of McNamara and Wilson; and more Purple Hearts than his 23 predecessors combined. That's why the president nominated Hagel -- and why he was right to do so.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


No Surrender

The Syrian president’s speech at the Damascus Opera House shows that he still thinks he can win this war.

Only the setting of Bashar al-Assad's Jan. 6 speech was new. The Syrian president spoke from the Damascus Opera House, a cultural landmark built by Assad that many mistook as a sign of his progressive outlook -- a pose now belied by his responsibility for the deaths of more than 60,000 people.

Unsurprisingly, the tone, substance, and theatrics of his address echoed the provocation, defiance, and political maneuvering that has defined his public remarks since his first address to parliament in March 2011. "Is this a revolution? Are those revolutionaries?" he asked the assembled crowd. "They are a bunch of criminals."

What was Assad thinking? Some will agonize over the president's words, searching for a political opening -- they will argue that he is escalating his rhetoric to build leverage ahead of possible negotiation. Unfortunately, that's too optimistic: It is about time we accept that Assad believes what he says, including that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms.

Last July, three Syrian and Lebanese regime sympathizers -- two of whom had just returned from meetings with senior Syrian officials -- told me in Beirut that the regime had settled on a "2014 strategy." Assad's objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself. The "peace plan" laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that.

Why 2014? The muddled reasoning I heard was as follows. A presidential election is scheduled to take place then, at which point the regime could come up with an elaborate show of arguably fabricated legitimacy (my question about the feasibility of holding such an "elaborate show" under current circumstances was ignored).

More importantly, the regime expects the opposition to fragment and falter within that timeframe. The armed rebels will come to blows over territory, resources, tactics, and ideology, they believe, and the political front will bicker among each other as they struggle for power. Assad and his aides probably realize that they cannot decisively reverse the rebel advance, but checking it may be enough to generate discord within rebel ranks. This may not be Assad's preferred option -- but he can afford to be the country's strongest warlord as long as he benefits from foreign assistance, faces a divided opposition, and can blackmail his foreign foes into inaction.

Assad seems to be sticking with this game plan: His war talk, his insistence on blaming all the violence on takfiris and Salafis -- code words for his Sunni opponents -- and his jabs at the Gulf states and Turkey were enough to rouse loyalists. Even as the regime behaves like a militia, Assad also still aims to embody a functioning Syrian state, thus placating urban fence-sitters who are still attached to that illusion, as well as Syrians who have been alienated by the rebels. It costs him little to inundate this audience with promises of political progress, however meaningless they may be.

Even as Assad demonized his opponents, he proved he could also brandish the language of reconciliation, ticking off several boxes in his speech: national conference, constitution, referendum, and "broadened" government. If any of this sounds new, it shouldn't. In the past two years, he has repeatedly uttered the same words, and Syria has gone through exactly the same process, with negligible impact. This is because power in Damascus never resided in formal institutions, which have become even less relevant as the uprising has dragged on and Assad increasingly depends on clan and sectarian loyalties.

The process of "reform" Assad announced Sunday is also aimed at keeping the international community busy with meaningless motions, preempting any new discussion about his fate. His speech comes after weeks of frenetic diplomatic activity centered on the Geneva plan, a transitional framework drawn up by the former U.N.-Arab League joint envoy Kofi Annan in June.

In his speech, Assad ridiculed the ambiguity of the Geneva plan over the transition.  He is right: Leaving out the crucial matter of Assad's fate was Annan's only way to get international powers to agree on the rest. The Syrian opposition and its Gulf and Turkish backers insist on Assad's resignation prior to any transition, lest he hijack the process. The United States, anxious to get any ball rolling, seems content to have Assad "step aside" (note: not "down") and remain in a ceremonial capacity while his deputy negotiates. Russia refuses any such precondition, insisting that Assad's departure from power can happen only as an outcome of any agreement.

Assad has turned this ambiguity into a tool to pressure Lakhdar Brahimi, who took over from Annan after the latter resigned in frustration in August. Brahimi, whom Assad contemptuously reminded in his speech, "Syria accepts advice but not orders," can reject Assad's dialogue process. But doing so would likely mean the end of the diplomatic track, which goes against the instincts of the eager diplomat, and would rattle Moscow and Washington. Assad probably hopes that Brahimi, with some Russian prodding, will reluctantly adopt it as a parallel initiative to his own Geneva plan, and that the Assad plan will eventually cannibalize Brahimi's.

This isn't a last-ditch effort on Assad's part. To be sure, the regime's capacity, resources, and support base are eroding steadily, even accelerating at times. But lost in the endless talk of an imminent endgame is the reality that the regime is not yet in a state of panic: It can still make rational decisions about its allocation of resources, and its forces often choose which area to defend, pummel, retake, or abandon. 

Barring some inside job to take out Assad, rebels are not about to overrun the presidential palace. Even with better organization and a political-military strategy -- two things their northern counterparts sorely lacked when they launched their ill-conceived assault in Aleppo -- rebels in Damascus still face a superior enemy. If, as seems likely, the battle for Damascus is many times more destructive and bloody than Aleppo's, then any rebel strategy will probably crumble in the process. The resulting stalemate would bolster Assad's own 2014 strategy.  

At the political level, the progress of the Syrian opposition has also been tenuous. The anti-Assad coalition faced near collapse when its feuding members met in Doha in November -- but since then, the seemingly more competent Syrian Coalition has gained international recognition. Tangible impact on the ground, however -- in terms of leadership, local governance and control over the armed units -- will take time to materialize. As long as Western states don't increase their material support, the coalition will remain extremely vulnerable -- and Assad knows that. The coalition has to prove itself and offer an inclusive message. He doesn't.

As long as Assad remains in Damascus, fence-sitters and regime loyalists can turn only to him. He can stomach losing supporters as long as they sit out the crisis and don't join the opposition -- an increasingly popular choice for many soldiers and bureaucrats currently in wait-and-see mode in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The most abused word in the uprising must be defection: A deserter becomes a defector not when they abandon the regime, but when they join the other side.

Despite Brahimi's hope that changing conditions on the ground and new assessments by great powers would blow some air into his sail, the time, energy, and jet fuel expended by the veteran negotiator haven't amounted to much. Moscow continues to obstruct substantive action against Assad -- and as my colleague Samuel Charap has noted, Russian behavior is based on its principled opposition to any U.N.-sanctioned effort to depose a sitting leader. Consequently, a change in Russian assessment of Assad's prospects doesn't equate to a change of Russian policy. Even then, Russian leverage over Assad has been overstated and Assad has clearly signaled that no U.N. action would sway him.

Does that mean Brahimi's mission should end? The diplomat, undercut and outmaneuvered, may decide to resign -- but the world has an interest in keeping a line of communication open to Damascus. A political solution will be needed at a later stage -- not with Assad, but with the remnants of his regime. Maintaining contacts and floating ideas in Damascus now may prove useful then.

More importantly, Western states should get off the sidelines. The illusion of a negotiated settlement is a consequence of Western indecision, not the cause for it. The United States in particular has squandered precious time and opportunities: The risks of greater involvement in Syria are certainly great, but the conflict has already overtaken the Iraq war in terms of regional and strategic impact, and Washington is at best marginal to its dynamics. U.S. Sen. John McCain only slightly exaggerated when he said last month: "In Syria, everything we said would happen if we didn't intervene is happening because we didn't intervene." Judging by Assad's speech, Syria's civil war is indeed about to become even more tragic as the world stands idly by.