Obama's Next Foreign Policy Battle

Sooner or later, the President is going to have to confront the neoconservatives

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME; Hagel: Getty Images

In the coming days, President Obama may or may not nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense. He would be the first Vietnam veteran to hold the job and the first noncommissioned officer, an Army sergeant grievously wounded in combat. His blue collar grunt experience would be particularly valuable as we reduce our forces and return our troops to civilian society. And yet the Hagel nomination has become one of those wild, foolish controversies that litter our public life--a fight that has nothing to do with his ability to manage the Pentagon or provide inspiring civilian leadership for our troops. It has to do with Israel and Iran. Indeed, it is a battle that Obama will face in the coming year whether he appoints Hagel or not.

The Hagel fight comes at a rare moment of foreign policy consensus. Obama has successfully followed a moderate, realist path overseas reminiscent of George H.W. Bush's Administration, balancing toughness and accommodation. He has moved aggressively, using drone strikes and special forces, against the central leadership of al-Qaeda. He has worked closely with Israel to sabotage Iran's nuclear project with computer viruses. At the end of 2012, he signed a bill that will continue the use of warrantless wiretaps against suspected terrorists. He built a surprising global alliance that included Russia and China to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran.

Obama has made mistakes but avoided disasters--which is no mean feat. And yet he has been on the defensive since the election, a race he won in no small part because of his sanity on overseas policy. Twice now, potential nominees for high national-security positions have been assaulted by neoconservative extremists. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was forced from contention as Secretary of State; the assault on Hagel commenced soon after.

It began, as such things often do, with an editorial by William Kristol in the Weekly Standard. He accused Hagel of being "anti-Israel" and "pro-appeasement" of Iran. The appeasement evidence centers on this Hagel quote: "A military strike against Iran ... is not a viable, feasible, responsible option." The stated position of the Obama Administration is that all options are on the table. But the unstated position of almost everybody who has looked at this problem, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and much of Israel's defense and intelligence apparatus, is that military action against Iran is a fool's errand. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said last October that a military strike against Iran would be "catastrophic." In truth, neoconservatives oppose any nonpunitive efforts to deal with the Iranian regime. But Hagel's belief that we should talk to all parties if they're willing to talk to us--the Iranians haven't been, hence the sanctions--is at the heart of the mainstream foreign policy consensus.

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