Ending the Mindset that Got Us into Iraq

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The nomination announcement for Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in the East Room of the White House.

President Obama’s announcement yesterday of his nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is important in a couple of ways. The first is that by following through with a candidate who faced one of the most intense negative pre-nomination campaigns in recent memory, the president signaled that is shaking off some of the caution that characterized his first term, and is prepared to undertake a bolder political course.

Indeed, the opposition to Hagel already seems to be weakening in the face of an overwhelming outpouring of support for the nomination now that it has been announced. According to a former Democratic Senate staffer I spoke to, this was to be expected. “It’s highly unlikely that the White House would’ve made this nomination without conferring with the Senate leadership first,” the former staffer said. “So the Republican caucus is going to have to make a decision: Do they want to be seen as a party who voted against an enlisted man war hero with shrapnel in his chest, who the armed forces will love? Are they really going to oppose him over a few comments that will probably be swatted down during hearings anyway?”

The second way the Hagel nomination is important, one that has even more significant implications for U.S. foreign policy, is that Obama may be preparing to pursue one of the more ambitious goals he articulated as a candidate for president. Back in January 2008, when the Democratic primary contest between Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hilary Clinton was still raging, Senator Obama took the opportunity during a debate to explain his opposition to the Iraq war. “I don't want to just end the war,” he insisted, “I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”

Many foreign policy progressives remember that line with great fondness, as it encapsulated much of what we wanted to see accomplished as well: An end to a reflexively hawkish unilateralism that favored military force at the expense of international diplomacy and consensus building, where being wrong meant never having to say you’re sorry, provided you always err on the side of more war.

Describing his vision of U.S. foreign policy in remarks at the Center for American Progress in May 2008, Hagel struck a very similar tone. “The world does not want an America that imposes, that dictates, that lectures, that preaches, that invades nor occupies,” he said. “I think the world does want a clear-thinking America that will lead with a consensus of purpose. That’s what we’ve done most of the time since World War II ... we can do that again. That’s what the next president, in my opinion, is going to have to do.”

One of the main charges we’ve heard from Hagel’s hawkish critics is that he is “out of the mainstream.” On MSNBC this Monday, Senator John Cornyn said Hagel’s views on Iran and the Middle East “strike me as Senator Hagel being out of the mainstream, and I believe just wrong when it comes to protecting the national security of the United States.” Appearing on CNN this past Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham told host Candy Crowley, “Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking, I believe, on most issues in foreign policy,” citing Hagel’s support for “directly negotiat[ing] with Iran.”

But opinion polls over the last several years have consistently shown that, when it comes to Iran, as well as to broader questions of U.S. military force, the American people are more with Chuck Hagel and the president, not with their hawkish critics. Unlike conservatives, who—as if trapped in Iraq-era amber—have mocked and criticized the president’s efforts to negotiate with Iran almost every step of the way (as well as ignored the evidence that those efforts have proven to be essential in forging a strong international-sanctions coalition) Americans are broadly supportive of diplomacy as the most important tool in the U.S. national security toolbox, and exceedingly wary of more costly and unnecessary military interventions. The fact of the matter is, here in the future of 2013, it’s Hagel’s hawkish critics who are out of the mainstream.

Upon taking office, President Obama found out just how hard it would be to change the mindset that got us into Iraq. While he took some important steps during his first term, ending George W. Bush-era practices such as waterboarding and extraordinary rendition, focusing U.S. anti-terrorism efforts more tightly against al Qaeda and away from an undifferentiated “terrorist” enemy, and following through on his central campaign promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, he also embraced many of Bush’s detention policies, escalated the war in Afghanistan, and radically increased the use of drone warfare. That some of this was done out of political expedience in the face of concerted GOP obstructionism hardly made it go down easier.

No one should have any illusions that changing the mindset will be a simpler task in Obama’s second term than it was in the first. But the choice of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense indicates that President Obama remains committed to trying, and his confirmation will be an important step in that direction.

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