Top five reasons Obama should pick Chuck Hagel for SecDef

So the Beltway world is a-twitter (literally) with the rumor that President Obama will nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) to be the next secretary of defense. This is a smart move that will gladden the hearts of sensible centrists, because Hagel is a principled, intelligent and patriotic American who believes that U.S. foreign and defense policy should serve the national interest. Here are my top five reasons why Hagel would be an excellent choice for the job.

1: He's a Republican realist. Like former defense secretary Robert Gates, Hagel is a realist from the moderate wing of the Republican party. He's a staunch advocate of a strong defense, yet he's clearly opposed to squandering U.S. power, prestige, and wealth on misbegotten crusades. He's also not prone to threat-inflation, which makes him almost unique.

Hagel's candidacy is also something of a no-lose appointment for Obama. By nominating a well-known Republican, Obama can again demonstrate a genuine commitment to bipartisanship. And if Republican senators try to torpedo the nomination of one of their own, it merely underscores how petty, extreme, and out of touch they are. Either way, Obama wins.

2: He thinks for himself. Unlike the usual inside-the-Beltway careerists with jelly for vertebrae and weathervanes for a conscience, Hagel is an independent thinker who wasn't afraid to challenge his own party when it started heading off the rails under President George W. Bush. Hagel showed real courage when he said that the Bush administration was the "most arrogant and incompetent administration"; he was telling it like it was. Washington could use more plain speaking these days, especially where foreign and defense policy are concerned. That's what Obama liked about Gates, and that's what he would get with Hagel.

3: He knows the subject. Hagel is a decorated Army veteran who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and he's remained involved with defense matters throughout his public career. More importantly, he's also well-versed on intelligence issues, having served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). In an era where DoD and the intelligence community increasingly intersect, that's a valuable pedigree. And if his personal experience in war has made him less inclined to intervene than eager civilians with no military experience, so much the better.

4: He's got good judgment. Although Hagel erred in voting for the Iraq War resolution in 2002, he figured out the war was a blunder a lot faster than most of his colleagues did. He wisely opposed the "surge" in 2006, and called instead for an immediate U.S. withdrawal. In terms of U.S. interests, getting out earlier would have saved us tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of soldiers' lives, and it would produced essentially the same outcome we have today. Remember: we stuck around long enough to cement Nuri al-Maliki's hold on power, only to watch him align his country with Iran, tell us to leave, and then obstruct our efforts in Syria. With the benefit of hindsight, Hagel's judgment looks sound.

5: He's got the right enemies. Hagel does have one political liability: Unlike almost all of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he hasn't been a complete doormat for the Israel lobby. In the summer of 2006, for example, he incurred the lobby's wrath by calling for a joint ceasefire during Israel's war with Hezbollah. Pressed by the lobby, Bush & Co. rejected this advice and let the war drag on, even though prolonging it made Hezbollah more popular in Lebanon and cost additional Israeli lives. Hagel has also been outspoken in calling for the United States to be more evenhanded in its handling of the peace process, and he's generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against Iran. Needless to say, such positions are anathema to Israel's hard-line supporters, some of whom are already attacking Hagel's suitability for SecDef. For the rest of us, however, Hagel's views are not only sensible -- they are in America and Israel's best interest.

Having lost out on Susan Rice, Obama is unlikely to put forward a nominee he's not willing to fight for or whom he thinks he might lose. So if Hagel is his pick to run the Pentagon, you can bet Obama will go to the mattresses for him. And what better way for Obama to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the "cooperation" Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi's transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?

For what it's worth, I hope Obama nominates Hagel and that AIPAC and its allies go all-out to oppose him. If they lose, it might convince Obama to be less fearful of the lobby and encourage him to do what he thinks is best for the country (and incidentally, better for Israel) instead of toeing AIPAC's line. But if the lobby takes Hagel down, it will provide even more evidence of its power, and the extent to which supine support for Israel has become a litmus test for high office in America.

Of course, it hard to know how effective a manager of the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy Hagel would be. But he would inherit a seasoned team of deputies to help him handle the day-to-day administrative tasks, and he certainly knows how the sausage gets made in Washington. Obama reportedly has confidence in Hagel's judgment, and could rely on him both for sage advice and political cover when needed. It is therefore easy to see why the president might find him an appealing pick. Equally important, he'd be an excellent choice for our country, which has a crying need for effective and principled leaders.

Stephen M. Walt

Scuds over Syria: Is Assad escalating the war?

Forces loyal to beleaguered Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad have reportedly begun firing Scud missiles at rebel groups. The New York Times' Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt call this a "significant escalation" in the fighting, but it's not at all clear why this is the case. In particular, this usage reflects the widespread but often unjustified tendency to view the introduction of any new weapon as a form of "escalation," even if doesn't involve an increase in lethality, war aims, or geographic scope.

In his book, War: Controlling Escalation, the late Richard Smoke pointed out that the term “escalation” has many meanings in strategic discourse. Sometimes it refers to the aims of war, at other times to the means being used, and in some cases to the scope of the conflict. When we talk about a conflict escalating, therefore, we usually mean it has crossed some strategically significant threshold and entered a qualitatively new phase. Thus, conflicts escalate when the original combatants adopt decidedly larger war aims, when a new category of targets (e.g., cities, civilians, etc.) are deliberately attacked, when other states join in the fighting, or when significantly more lethal means (e.g., WMD) are employed.

What constitutes a significant threshold is somewhat arbitrary, however. In this case, Assad’s aims haven’t changed and there’s no sign as yet that the Scuds are being used to attack a new set of targets. Instead, Assad’s forces appear to be using a different weapon to pursue the same ends (i.e., the defeat of the rebel forces and the retention of power). But given that the Scuds are armed with conventional high explosive, why assume that the use of different delivery system is itself a case of “escalation?” If Assad began using cavalry, hot air balloons, chariots, or pikes, would we call it “escalation?” I doubt it. Gordon and Schmitt’s use of this term implicitly assumes that the mere use of any type of ballistic missile is by definition a “higher” level of war, even if they don’t threaten or kill as many people as other weapons do.

The Scud is a tactical-range ballistic missile, originally developed by the Soviet Union. It carries a rather modest payload of roughly 900-1000 kilograms; enough to do lots of damage but not a form of WMD unless equipped with a chemical or nuclear warhead. The most modern version, the Scud-D, reportedly has a circular error probability of 50 meters (in theory); earlier versions are much less accurate.

There’s no question that Assad’s forces can probably use Scuds against various rebel targets with some effectiveness, and using missiles of this sort might help them avoid MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) or other missile defenses that are now showing up in rebel hands. But using the term “escalation” implies that the Syrian government has somehow taken the conflict to a new level. This does not appear to be the case -- at least not yet -- because Scuds aren’t significantly more lethal than the other means -- such as artillery fire -- that Assad has already been using against the Syrian people.

What worries me, of course, is that careless use of language will convince people that the war is rising rapidly up some sort of “escalation ladder” and strengthen the chorus of voices demanding that the United States get more heavily involved. Reasonable people can disagree about that point, but the mere fact that Assad has now used Scuds is largely irrelevant. This decision may be a sign of growing desperation on his part; if so, I hope that some creative diplomacy can convince him to blow town before the entire country is destroyed. But unless he puts chemical warheads on top of them or starts attacking a new category of targets, the fact that Scuds are involved is not in fact very significant.