Senate Confirmations: An Opportunity Squandered

President Obama’s foreign policy team is undergoing a makeover, with the nominations of Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State, former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, and the Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan as CIA Director.  All three gentlemen are expected to be confirmed; Kerry already has, Hagel will likely be confirmed (following an abysmal hearing) later this week, and Brennan faces his confirmation hearing this Thursday, which will essentially be the GOP’s final chance to hold Obama accountable for broken national security policies.

The GOP squandered two opportunities to ask proper questions of Kerry and Hagel.  The Kerry confirmation hearing was a jovial affair for one of the first advocates on intervention in the Libyan civil war in 2011, which, by the way, received no congressional authorization.  When Kerry was questioned about congressional authorization, he essentially bragged about his history of support for unilateral Executive action in Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Bosnia, and yes, Libya.

When pressed on why bombing Libya was acceptable while bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War was not, he complained about “absolutism” making the Congress “unwilling to move,” proving that his experience in the Vietnam War does not inform his decision-making anywhere else.  Kerry was not asked why we keep fighting France’s wars, whether in Mali, Libya, or Vietnam, when military action is clearly not in our national security interest.

Military matters aside, we should remember that as State Secretary, John Kerry will be our chief diplomat.  He has indeed shown he can meet with foreign leaders, meeting five times in two years with his “dear friend” Syria’s Bashar Assad before the insurrection there, and insisting as late as 2010 that Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria.  The Senate opted not to pounce on these associations or comments.

On Iranian nuclear ambitions, Kerry promised “prevention, not containment,” and insisted that ”intrusive inspections” are required for prevention, although previous inspection attempts have failed for the better part of  a decade.  Whether Kerry would pursue prevention through diplomacy or strikes on nuclear facilities was left unanswered.  Nevertheless, Kerry was confirmed 94-3.

Next up was Chuck Hagel, who’s heterodoxy places him mostly outside the foreign policy establishmentarian views held by the other two nominees.  With ten years experience working in or for the US military, I am a tepid supporter of Hagel for Secretary of Defense, but he basically did a belly flop off the high dive at last week’s Senate confirmation hearing.  Nevertheless, speaking in shrewd political terms, the nomination of Chuck Hagel, the first enlisted man for the office and Vietnam veteran, could be good for the GOP, as it allows more leeway politically for those entrenched within the Party to dissociate with its mottled neocon past, so it can stop disenfranchising the non-interventionist foreign policy “realists” who are currently searching for alternatives to both parties.

But the broken foreign policy establishment didn’t see it this way.  Chuck Hagel faced bitter opposition in his nomination process from his former colleagues, most notably Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.  Essentially, the hearing devolved into a couple of military officers reprimanding an enlisted soldier for poor conduct.  Hagel, after all, is seen as a threat to the Republican brand of internationalism as he understood the dangers of permanent warfare in Iraq, and resisted the typical Republican groupthink saber-rattling over Iran.

McCain, the Iraq War’s “Surge Protector,” hammered Hagel over his opposition to the Surge of troops into the Iraq War - which racked up 4,422 American and 650,000 Iraqi casualties (and five million refugees) – but due to McCain’s interruptions and false dilemma questioning method, Hagel was unable to answer that the Surge would have been unsuccessful without the Sunni Awakening.  General Sean B. MacFarland offered the following insight on the Surge:

“I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaida. Maybe 75 to 80 percent of the credit for the success of the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaida and joined us in common cause. Without the intel provided by the awakening groups, our job would have been vastly more difficult.”

Meanwhile, Graham hammered Hagel over his previous comments and demanded an answer, to use Hagel’s words, which Senator is “by the Israel Lobby,” and what “dumb things” they’ve been goaded into doing.  I’ve seen Graham’s type before: When wrong, yell until you are not perceived as being wrong.  Perhaps the member Graham wanted identified was the one most offended by the comment.

To see who’s intimidated by what, look no further than the questions Hagel got: 166 about Israel, 144 about Iran, but only 20 on Afghanistan, where the Pentagon insists we remain, when the CIA approximates there are only 50-100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. With 66,000 troops deployed, we outnumber Al Qaeda 1000-1 in Afghanistan.  These matters were left clear out of the limelight.

Worse still, the Senate asked zero questions on drone warfare.  Which brings us to John Brennan.

Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, faces an easier path than he did when he was blocked for the job four years ago.  Brennan is considered the “driving force behind America’s overseas drone program,”  within which President Obama has authorized more than 400 signature drone strikes via his weapon of choice in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with more than 4 times the deaths by drone than under Bush, to little opposition.

Things got trickier yesterday, as new information on targeting killing was leaked – in the form of a Justice Department white paper - that lays out three rules for assassinating American citizens with drones, and without trial:

1. “An informed, high-level official” must determine that the person represents “an imminent threat” of “violent attack against the United States.”
2. Capture is “infeasible,” and the government will continue to assess whether capturing is feasible.
3. The killing, or “lethal operation,” must be conducted according to the laws of war.

I’m no legal expert, but I believe the legal justification for Executive Department killing American citizens on American soil was codified by the Congress in NDAA 2012, going further than the 2004 Hamdi decision by undoing a citizen’s Constitutional right to due process.  Legal definition of the battlefield is another story:  The “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists,” signed September 14, 2001, for military action in Afghanistan, is being used for perpetual warfare around the world, “against states that merely “harbor” or “support” or have “known links” with non-state terrorists or other international criminals.”

The legal framework for the use of drones for bombing campaigns in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Mali has been ignored, allowing Obama and Brennan to redefine “imminent,” “feasible,” “the battlefield,” and “combatant.”  Essentially, in four years, Obama and Brennan have redefined “war.”  With Brennan’s confirmation hearing this week, the Senate has an opportunity to demand answers on our use of drones, but based on the Kerry and Hagel hearings, my expectations are low.

This could be an inflection point in foreign policy; I’m not so sure.  Whereas dissent was patriotic under Bush, Republicans today are unwilling to admit past failures, while Democrats are unwilling to question their leader, Barack Obama.  So we plod along, eyes closed, into an unending war with an enemy unlike any we’ve encountered in recent history, while in the process, demanding American citizens relinquish more of their civil liberties.  In doing so, Republicans risk being pigeon-holed forever as senseless interventionists, who “never met a war they didn’t like,” and subsequently losing whatever strands of conservative foreign policy it has left, as the dissenting voices of foreign policy realists exit both parties.

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