A concerted conservative campaign against Chuck Hagel, U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, practically guarantees that his confirmation hearing this week will receive the lion’s share of the media attention regarding Obama’s proposed national security team.
But the back and forth about Hagel’s positions, including his perceived independence from Israel, has obscured a more important question: What signals do Obama’s new foreign policy picks send about the kind of America the rest of the world, and particularly the Middle East, can expect? At present, depending on where you sit, the implications of the Obama nominations could arouse fear (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen,) interest (Iran,) or indifference (the Palestinians.)
When it comes to arousing fear, the nominee for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan stands head and shoulders above the rest. Brennan was drone warfare impresario in the first Obama administration. He played a similar role for “enhanced interrogation” (aka torture) and “rendition” (deportation to countries practicing torture) in the George W. Bush administration. His nomination is cause for alarm for the peoples of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia who have borne the brunt of killer drones.
Brennan is expected to face tough questions about drone killings at his nomination in early February. If he is confirmed regardless, the Senate will be giving a green light for the continued use of tactics that violate international law and win enemies for America. Whatever the Senate decides, the rest of the world, in the shape of the United Nations, is calling the drones policy into question. It is investigating the legality of such extra-judicial killing, zeroing in on areas targeted by the U.S., Israel, and Britain.
The Hagel pick and the confirmation of John Kerry as Secretary of State send somewhat different signals. As decorated veterans of the Vietnam War, both have spoken out against the U.S. engaging in war when its security is not at stake. Hagel tried to secure more time for diplomacy before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, although he voted in favor he quickly turned against the war.
Neither man will set White House policy, but Obama is unlikely to have chosen a team completely out of step with his beliefs. Hagel is sounding tougher about Iran in preparation for his Senate hearings, but there is a declining probability of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, something that would unleash a real conflagration in the region. Even Israel, which pushed hard for an attack on Iran against Obama administration reluctance, recognizes this, and hardly touched the issue in its recent elections. If Iran is spared the fate of Iraq, this is no small mercy.
The incurable optimists who believe the U.S. will finally make a forceful, even-handed push for Middle East peace read Hagel’s nomination as a snub to Israel and as a positive portent. True, Hagel did not sign all the pro-Israel letters generated by its acolytes on the Hill and once actually favored talking to Hamas, although he has backtracked in advance of his confirmation hearings. But analysis shows that his voting record is well within the Senate mainstream.
In any case, it is hard to envisage a serious U.S. push for peace in the foreseeable future. Any serious effort would have to break dramatically with the U.S. record since 1978 of accepting the Israeli vision of limited autonomy for the Palestinians, as Rashid Khalidi masterfully delineates in a recent piece. The Obama administration has shown no stomach for it.
There are steps the U.S. could take to bring peace closer short of an all-out push. Obama could end the use, or rather misuse, of U.S. charities to fund Israeli settlements, a scandal exposed in the Washington Post early in his first term. He could pay more attention to those voices urging that U.S. aid to Israel comply with U.S. and international law. He could stop blocking UN censure of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. And he could stop standing in the way of Palestinian reconciliation.
Meanwhile, longer-term trends are working against Israel’s colonial project and for peace. The public kerfuffle at the 2012 Democratic Convention over citing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital indicates a real shift among the grassroots that will not have escaped the attention of party managers. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia as a sphere of strategic interest will gradually lessen Israel’s importance in U.S. calculations.
For the present, a large U.S. military footprint will remain in the region in the shape of drones and bases. But one can hope for a day when peoples can shape their own futures in an interdependent world where the U.S. does not just pay lip service to human rights and international law but upholds them at home and abroad.