Even though Hagel voted for in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his defining stands on international security issues have come when he has-true to his Vietnam-era roots-resisted American intervention and sought to pull the country out of what he saw as costly, unwinnable engagements. Indeed, in terms of Iran policy, one of the things that has critics up in arms about the Pentagon appointment is Hagel's public resistance to an American military confrontation with that country over its nuclear program. Hagel, Kerry, and other members of the Obama team have all been actively working for the past few years to reduce America's military involvement in the Middle East to its bare minimum. Even Brennan's appointment as CIA director should be seen in that context; inside the administration the drone warfare that Brennan has advocated is viewed as part of a "light footprint" strategy in the region that allows America to reach out and touch its enemies with the smallest possible commitment of resources and the least risk.
There is plenty about such approaches to like, particularly when they are viewed in light of the huge costs associated with our catastrophic interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as the United States struggles with domestic economic challenges and looks to benefit from new resource discoveries at home that can lead to greater energy independence, disengagement from the Middle East now seems as much a historical imperative as it is a policy choice.
Indeed, disengagement is only a problem if it does not come simultaneously with new forms of engagement. The void created by withdrawing American hard power from the Middle East and other global trouble spots will collapse on us and cause great unrest if it is not filled with something else. Here, the president's 2008 focus on engaging enemies and his administration's increased reliance on restoring old alliances damaged during the Bush years and identifying new ones, especially with emerging powers from Turkey to India to Southeast Asia, is an encouraging sign. Kerry's own impulses toward diplomacy of a more traditional kind suggest that Obama's second-term national security team may indeed cement this kind of legacy for him, allowing him to be remembered as a president who made America strong again through cultivating friendships rather than flexing our muscles.
That said, this does represent a shift that will be
materially different for allies like Israel that have depended on the threat of
the use of force from the United States as one of their own foreign policy's
primary tools. Choosing a guy like Hagel, who has sought with too little grace
but with reasonable attention to America's real national interest to shrug off
the influence of the Israel lobby, should not necessarily be seen as the reason
Israel should be concerned. It is not up
against one man with rogue views. The president will set his own policies. Hagel
will work for him. But Israel is up against history and it ought to be focused
on finding a way to ensure its security in the roiling environment of its
tumultuous region based on an expectation that the America of tomorrow will not
act precisely as the America of yesterday did.
Nixon broke the law. He was a paranoid, deeply flawed leader. He also certainly oversaw some of the most significant foreign policy successes of any president over the past 50 years. Not only did he ultimately get America out of Vietnam, he empowered his foreign policy team to reach out and cultivate new relationships with the era's other great powers, notably Russia and China. The challenges were different. But he was a man who offset military disengagement with active diplomatic engagement. It would be an interesting irony if Obama, Kerry, and Hagel ultimately ended up emulating this underappreciated aspect of the late, not-so-lamented president's legacy.