President Obama announced his choices for key national security posts this past week, and there has been both celebration and gnashing of teeth in Washington and around the country. There is widespread belief that either or both of these nominees will have an immediate and profound effect on US policy. However, this belief is really just a mistaken over-emphasis on personnel over policy. We should not forget that cabinet secretaries serve the president, and not the other way around.
Many who object to our continued foreign policy of endless war and empire overseas feel encouraged by Obama’s choice of Senator Hagel to head the Defense Department. Hagel has shown some admirable willingness to advise caution overseas. He is seen as unenthusiastic over the prospects of a US war on Iran, which is certainly to be welcomed. But let us not forget that he did vote for the war against Iraq, he has expressed support for multi-lateral sanctions on Iran, and last year he wrote in the Washington Post that, on Iran, he supports “keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force.”
Nevertheless because he does represent a more moderate voice in foreign policy than the neo-conservatives can tolerate, they are dragging his name through the mud. In choosing Hagel, then, we can hope the president is signaling that he will pursue a less aggressive foreign policy in his second term. But we cannot count on it.
At the same time, the president has chosen John Brennan as Central Intelligence Agency director — a man who is considered the author of Obama’s destructive drone warfare policy, and who as such has been in charge of the president’s secret “kill list” that has already claimed the lives of three American citizens. He claimed in 2011 that there were no collateral deaths from the US drone attacks on Pakistan, which is simply not believable. We also should not forget that as then-CIA director George Tenet’s right hand man during the Bush presidency, Brennan was certainly involved in the manufactured intelligence and lies that led the US to attack Iraq.
The real problem is in placing too much emphasis on the person the president hires to carry out his foreign and defense policy, as it ignores that policy itself. If the president has decided to continue or even expand US military action overseas through more covert warfare and use of special operations forces, which seems to be the case, it will matter little who he chooses to carry out those policies. If the president decides to continue to provide support to rebels in Syria who have dubious ties to Islamic extremists, to continue to meddle in the internal affairs of countless countries overseas, to continue to refuse to even talk with Iran without preconditions, and so on, we will not see a return to foreign policy sanity no matter who occupies what position in the president’s cabinet.
So we should be optimistic that the president may see the wisdom in pursuing a foreign policy that is truly in our national interest, but we should always keep an eye on the policies over the personnel.