THE BLOG
12/24/2012 03:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2013

Chuck Hagel and the Trial-Balloon Method (Updated)

It looks as if Barack Obama is poised to back off his intention of nominating Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. To stick with Hagel against substantial (though at the beginning, surmountable) resistance would mean declaring one of his own apparent commitments to be unshakable. The pattern of Obama's career and character, however, goes the other way. His preferred method has been (a) to give in silently and let the issue trail off; or (b) make an announcement of temporary surrender in the foreseeable future; or (c) string out negotiations until the farthest-out solution seems a possible but clearly dangerous option, and his own ratification of centrist conventional wisdom appears the result of profound reflection.

Of the three methods listed above, (a) was the protocol for announcing and some months later scuttling the closure of Guantanamo, (b) was used to defer any action on global warming, and (c) for escalating the Afghanistan war after giving the generals the time and opportunity to leak their plans for a larger escalation. The ostensible exception is the health care law, whose passage lasted the long year between Obama's inauguration and its signing in early 2010. But the exception proves the rule: after the signing, Obama said and did little to defend the Affordable Care Act, and his advisers have said he expected it to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. (That expectation was itself, of course, a reason for his silence. Obama does not like to be seen to struggle against "reality.")

Chuck Hagel would make a superb secretary of defense. There is not another American of high reputation in public life who has proved himself so free of the disastrous illusions that led to the Global War on Terror. Is there any consolation in the loss, if it happens? Obama's first choices for state and defense were Susan Rice and Hagel. The sickly trial-balloon method -- so susceptible to the gradual buildup of an intimidating opposition -- may end by sinking them both; yet they were contradictory choices in what they stood for: much harder to reconcile than, say, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton. Rice is a careerist of the national security elite. Her only idiosyncrasy, if one can call it that, is excessive enthusiasm for "humanitarian intervention" and the remote-control wars that such enthusiasm breeds. Hagel, by contrast, is an independent thinker and a dissident, far more than the president himself: a man so alienated from the Republican war madness and other kinds of madness that he walked away from his party in 2008. A Kerry-Hagel team would have been interesting; but Obama's original choice was the incoherent combination of Hagel and Rice.

In Barack Obama's lexicon of prudential juggling, to go ahead and nominate Chuck Hagel now, after the opposition in the last two weeks has used the time it was given to grow, would be merely a "distraction" from the serious aims of his presidency. And in the playbook that is the constant guide of the maturity of Obama's judgment, a distraction can never be allowed. Recall Obama's expedient reversal of his opposition to immunity of the telecoms from prosecution for illegal surveillance, and remember: that, too, was explained as a necessary avoidance of distractions in the 2008 campaign. Cap-and-trade legislation was described as a high priority for a year and a half, before it was ditched as a distraction in late summer 2010. Work on nuclear proliferation was a hopeless distraction from 2009 through 2012 inclusive. Global warming, as the president has said, may be a catastrophe that is already upon us, but it is a secondary concern for most Americans now, and therefore may be filed away as a distraction in his second term. At best, global warming will be given the Commission Treatment and the slow boat to the next presidency.

What is the political cure for a commitment that has become a distraction? The answer is something that sounds similar but looks different: a diversion.

Very possibly, Obama now will nominate Michèle Flournoy as defense secretary. Flournoy worked in harmony with Gates as his undersecretary for policy, and nobody will oppose her. Also, Obama will be praised for giving us the first female secretary of defense. There will be some good publicity in that move, another indication of "the progress we're making as a society." One can compose the eloquent speech without much effort. Meanwhile, his silence over Hagel -- the contrast with his show of insulted loyalty for Rice is instructive -- has opened the way for so much demagogic claptrap that, alongside the anti-gay and anti-Israel charges, it has actually become possible to squeeze a patriotic objection out of the fact that Senator Hagel criticized the Iraq war.

This final twist of the anti-Hagel slanders, a real regression in the tenor of popular discussion, must also be blamed in some measure on President Obama. For it echoes his own turn from saying, in 2007, that the Iraq war made America less safe to his saying in 2010 that it made America safer. Words can indeed be important, if not quite to the extent or in quite the way the president fancies, and his timidity in declining to fight a smear campaign against a courageous public servant whose honor he placed on the line may yield a perspective from which to reinterpret a few of his favorite words. Reflection. Pivot. Dreams.

_______________

Update (12/29/2012): Posted five days ago, this blog now appears to have been premature in guessing that the pressure against Hagel would continue to mount. Public discussion, in fact, has tipped the other way. And though the president has left the issue in suspense, the effect of his delay (as witness alarmist columns sympathetic to Hagel by Steve Clemons in The Huffington Post, John Judis in The New Republic, and Thomas Friedman in The New York Times) has been to shrink the prestige of the anti-Hagel campaign and identify it almost exclusively as a neoconservative and Israel-lobby cause. A letter to the Washington Post by four former national security advisers, including Zbigniew Brzezinski and Obama's own adviser General James Jones, praises Chuck Hagel as "a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics to advance the interests of the United States and its friends and allies." James Hormel, the Clinton ambassadorial nominee who was said to have resented a fourteen-year-old anti-gay slur, has publicly accepted Hagel's apology. The only gay-rights group opposed to Hagel are the Log Cabin Republicans. The only senators to speak either tactically or explicitly against him are three Republicans -- McCain, Graham, and Cornyn -- who have cheered every war of our war-ridden age and pushed for wars we never fought in Georgia and Syria; along with two Democrats, Lieberman and Schumer, who have made it plain over many years that they do not recognize that Americans may criticize Israel in good faith.

Oddly, the result of the trial-balloon method, here, has been to turn Obama's selection into a more conspicuous test of will and commitment than it was before. The forces that ambushed the nomination are those that, no matter who is president or who is secretary of defense, will continue to press for war with Iran, will work to override constitutional checks against torture and rendition, will seek a pretext to re-ignite the Cold War, and will abort the creation of an independent Palestine. A decision to nominate Hagel, and thereby to deny these people the veto-power they demand in questions of defense and foreign policy, would indicate the president's refusal of the pledge of obedience they look to extort from him before his second term begins.