Nominations Towards Normalcy
The Weekly Standard and other neoconservative rags have started their predictable braying for blood after President Obama today nominated Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense and John Brennan for CIA Director. Most of the sound and fury has been against Hagel’s supposed “anti-Israel” stances, and better writers than I will handle the demolition of those shameless voices. Meanwhile, I’d like to focus on what the nominations of Brennan and Hagel mean for the overall tenor of the War on Terror.
If you’d like to skip ahead to the conclusion, here it is: I think that the combination of Hagel and Brennan signal an institutional shift toward normalcy regarding use of force and intervention. Further, it reflects a continuing shift toward State Department primacy in foreign policy that started in the first term. The end result will be a return if not to pre-9/11 foreign policy, then to a modern “peacetime” normalcy with a winding down of the war on terror. Read on for the why.
As I’ve noted before, I think that the Obama Administration’s current approach to drone warfare and war on terror policy are structurally different from the Bush Administration. Efforts to codify procedures and to find justification in short-term legal frameworks like the AUMF have defined the Obama Administration’s rationales. This contrasts sharply to the arguments used by the Bush Administration with its plenary authority arguments on detention and use of force.
Harold Koh and John Brennan have been some of the key architects in this shift.
Over the past several months, Brennan has expressed a desire to move the CIA out of the lethal drone strike business and create a framework where the military will assume responsibility for actually carrying out drone strikes. Once confirmed as CIA director, Brennan will have an opportunity to craft policy proposals that will begin to put this change into practice.
Meanwhile, whether or not the sequester is dealt with, the Defense Department will be seeing a reduction in its budget over the next several years. The Obama Administration has shown that it will prefer to rely on a combination of “war in the shadows” style light footprint strikes for counter-terrorism and an off-shore balancing through ready-made alliances role in larger strategic questions over the high footprint interventions favored by the previous administration.
The choice of a realist former senator like Chuck Hagel whose public stances on everything from Afghanistan withdrawal to nuclear disarmament, suggests that there will be some stewardship and negotiating on Capitol Hill to be done toward those aims by Hagel.
Brennan a career intelligence and national security bureaucrat is hardly the rock star like his predecessor Petraeus. Meanwhile Hagel, while a senior statesman does not have the national profile of his State Department counterpart. (Whether Hillary Clinton for a few more weeks or John Kerry)
Both of these moves suggests a deemphasis on the public roles of SecDef and CIA Director in contrast to the State Department. This continues the trend where the high profile “prestige” nomination went to Hillary Clinton for SecState while SecDef was occupied by the comparatively more sedate Leon Panetta.
Combined with the commitment to draw-down in Afghanistan and the pivot toward a strategic role in Asia over heavy involvement in South Asia and the Middle East suggests the Obama Administration is moving toward a posture that will steadily wind down the war on terror.
There will still be substantial issues with the new posture of course. JSOC is hardly the most transparent place to put a drone strike program, GITMO is still open and doesn’t seem like there’s much political will to close it. The expanded powers that Congress has stupidly expanded remain. But perhaps the debate in 2016 (and 2017 when the FISA provisions expire) will be saner, and we’ll have a different framework from which to talk about the excesses of the 2000s.
I would like to acknowledge Professor Robert Chesney’s post at Lawfare for planting the seed of this post in my mind.