This Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Nixon. Conventional wisdom says Nixon was brought down by Watergate. The reality was that he was undone as much by the divisiveness of the Vietnam years as by any of the marked and material flaws in his character. Distrust of the Washington establishment and of the ugly, costly war into which it had mismanaged America created a polarized, volatile atmosphere. Nixon gave his enemies the sword they needed to undo him and produce the kind of wrenching change the era seemed to demand.
John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are two products of that era. By extension so, too, is their new patron and soon-to-be boss: Barack Obama (even though Nixon's resignation took place just five days after Obama's 13th birthday). Obama's choices for secretary of state and defense, respectively, Kerry and Hagel are both veterans of the Vietnam war, and although one became a liberal Democrat and the other a conservative Republican, both were defined by their Vietnam experience. Both developed a willingness to challenge conventional military wisdom and a desire to avoid more Vietnams in the future. For Hagel, this ultimately meant breaking with his own party when he saw America's involvement in Iraq heading in a dangerous direction.
For Obama, whose political bar mitzvah, or coming of age if you will, took place in the America of Vietnam, his career has been largely shaped by the liberal traditions that arose in response to and in the wake of that war. Certainly, that seemed clear during the 2008 campaign, when Obama took the more dovish stance in the primaries versus then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But it has seemed less evident during his presidency, when not only did Obama bring Clinton and Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates into his cabinet, but he also undertook a number of initiatives that suggested a deviation from that liberal tradition, from redoubling America's commitment to Afghanistan to military intervention in Libya to a major escalation in America's use of drone warfare, cyber warfare and special operations to project power worldwide.
The big question surrounding Obama and his second-term national security cabinet is whether the new team will reveal which of the seemingly contradictory impulses displayed by the president in his first term will ultimately be seen as his legacy. Are there clues in these choices that suggest an answer?
Picking liberal Kerry and conservative Hagel, who had a lifetime Senate rating of 85 from the American Conservative Union, might suggest that Obama is at his heart as balanced as his first-term policies seemed to be. Picking two military veterans plus close counterterrorism advisor and 25-year CIA professional John Brennan, architect of the administration's drone wars, suggests that perhaps the seemingly liberal president is actually a bit of a closet hawk. Perhaps the president who drew GOP contempt for what was seen as his capitulating, cozying-up-to-enemies approach of "engagement" in 2008, is at heart an American exceptionalist tough guy to warm a neocon heart (if neocons had hearts).
But the reality is that for all the differences among the members of this national security team -- East Coast liberal Kerry, heartland Republican Hagel, career CIA Brennan, tough, shoot-from-the-lip Susan Rice, strategy-sensitive, process master Donilon -- there is one thing that links them all. It is not engagement. It is disengagement.