WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is assembling a national security team designed for an era of downsized but enduring conflict, a team that will be asked to preside over the return of exhausted American troops and wield power through the targeted use of sanctions, Special Operations forces and drone strikes.
Obama’s nominations of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to lead the CIA signal second-term course adjustments at institutions that have been dominated by their lethal assignments during more than a decade of war.
Those adjustments could include returning the CIA’s focus to its core mission of gathering intelligence, even though it is expected to maintain its fleet of armed drones for years. The Pentagon faces an even more aggressive restructuring to balance budget cuts against threats, including China’s ascendent military and emerging al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa and the Middle East.
The nominations also set the stage for confirmation fights driven not only by criticism of Hagel and Brennan but by the foreign policy approach they represent.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, shares Obama’s aversion to military intervention. White House officials described him as ideally suited to managing the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the shrinking Pentagon budget. But he has attracted fierce criticism from groups that question his support for Israel.
Brennan is a 25-year CIA veteran who has voiced concern over the agency’s paramilitary mission and has imposed tighter controls on targeted killing, even while his White House tenure has been marked by a massive increase in the agency’s drone campaign.
Four years ago, Brennan withdrew from consideration to be CIA director amid questions about his role as a high-ranking CIA official at a time when the agency employed brutal interrogation techniques — a link certain to resurface when he faces a Senate vote.
Both men are known for their strong personalities and strongly held views. Still, associates described them as comfortable fits for an administration that favors covert action — including Predator drone strikes on al-Qaida targets and cyber-sabotage of Iran’s nuclear plants — over conventional force.
In announcing the nominees, Obama said their agenda would include “ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle, (and) preparing for the full range of threats.” He also emphasized their experiences in the lower ranks of the institutions they would run, saying both served overseas and understand firsthand “the consequences of decisions that we make in this town.”
Obama avoided one confirmation fight when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration to be secretary of state amid criticism of her role in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Instead, Obama turned to a compromise pick, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama’s selection of Kerry, Hagel and Brennan reflects a change in foreign policy priorities for the second term.
Rhodes said all three nominees share Obama’s basic view of the world and America’s place in it, a view that favors multilateral alliances and a reliance on intelligence and lethal technology, holding war as a last resort. “These are three men well suited to that task,” he said.
Brennan has led a White House effort to develop a “playbook” of counterterrorism policies, aiming to set up institutions that can sustain the fight against al-Qaida for another decade or more. But Obama is also seeking to turn toward other objectives, including new initiatives in Asia and expanded nuclear-nonproliferation work.
Hagel would add a well-known war skeptic to the administration’s national security team at a time when a potential military confrontation with Iran over its uranium-enrichment efforts looms as one of the gravest security challenges of Obama’s second term.
Sides gear up for Hagel nomination fight
The nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon has set in motion a highly unusual campaign-style brawl over a Cabinet post long considered above politics.
Supporters and opponents are raising money and building political organizations in anticipation of a grueling and contentious Senate confirmation process.
The opponents, led by a conservative group called the Emergency Committee for Israel, began airing attack ads soon after the Nebraska Republican’s name surfaced weeks ago and on Monday rolled out a website, www.chuckhagel.com, to lay out its case against him. The group has questioned Hagel’s commitment to the security of the Jewish state and accused him of being soft on Iran.
White House officials, meantime, have begun an aggressive campaign to introduce “the real Chuck Hagel,” recruiting high-profile endorsements and contacting potential critics in an effort to neutralize opposition. For the first time since his name was floated, “the White House is putting its full muscle” behind Hagel, said a person familiar with the process.
— The Washington Post