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Hagel, Kerry and the Ghost in Their Heads

The White House/Pete Souza

The White House/Pete Souza

President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as his Defense Secretary has sparked a raging debate over whether the views held by the former Senator from Nebraska are sufficiently in the U.S. foreign policy mainstream.  Lost in the tumult, however, is how his appointment (along with John F. Kerry’s as Secretary of State) is in an important way out of step with Mr. Obama’s own worldview.

True, the selections mean that Obama is bringing into his Cabinet the trio of Senatorial confidants who tutored him on national security issues in the run-up to his first presidential campaign.  By reuniting Hagel and Kerry with Vice President Joe Biden, the president has formed what Michael Hirsh at the National Journal calls the “team of mentors.”  This is in contrast to the much-hyped “team of rivals” in Obama’s first term, created when Hillary Rodham Clinton, a fierce political opponent, was tapped for the State Department.

Despite his Republican Party affiliation, Hagel was much closer to Obama during their time together in the Senate than Clinton ever was.  He accompanied Obama during the high-profile July 2008 tour of Afghanistan and the Middle East that was designed to burnish the national security credentials of the Democratic presidential nominee.  Back then, Hagel was even talked about as a possible running mate for Obama; he was open to the idea though he advised Obama to pick Biden.*  During the 2008 campaign, Hagel endorsed Obama over his own party’s presidential nominee and helped deflect Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy positions.

Hagel is the first Vietnam veteran to be nominated for the Pentagon post and the White House is underscoring his distinguished war record.  But this experience also puts him (and Kerry) at sharp odds with the worldview held by Obama and many in his White House circle, who are not products of the Vietnam era and think of the conflict as ancient history.

Hagel is a man haunted by Vietnam; indeed, he still carries shrapnel from a Viet Cong mine in his chest and another mine explosion has left scar marks on his face.  As a Washington Post profile notes, his foreign policy epiphany came with the release of taped conversations in which President Lyndon B. Johnson acknowledged that the war was unwinnable but that he would send more troops to Vietnam anyway.

John Kerry is similarly defined by his military service in Vietnam.  His experience led him to become a conspicuous leader of the antiwar movement and it is a central frame of reference in his political career.  The lessons he drew from the conflict informed his prominent criticism (noteworthy examples here and here) of the Reagan administration’s approach toward Central America in the 1980s as well as his wariness of the Obama troop surge in Afghanistan.

But the prism of Vietnam, integral to Hagel’s and Kerry’s outlook, is altogether alien to Obama.  As James Mann writes in his insightful new book, The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power, the president and his closest White House associates are from a generation entirely removed from the Vietnam era and thus free from the contradictory foreign policy impulses that arose within the Democratic Party in response to the war: They are possessed neither by the nagging fear of strategic quagmire that came to be known as the “Vietnam syndrome” nor by the opposite pathology of feeling it politically necessary to parade their tough-mindedness (outstanding example – Michael Dukakis and his tank ride).

Mann argues that many in Obama’s inner foreign policy circle think of “themselves as not just post-Vietnam, but post-post Vietnam.” Because their central frame of reference is the post-9/11 era, Vietnam is an irrelevant topic.  Mann notes that “rejecting Vietnam analogies lay at the core of the Obama team’s self-image and political strategy” and he quotes Ben Rhodes, the president’s foreign policy speechwriter, as saying “It’s not like this ghost is in his [Obama’s] head.”

The Obamian perspective seems key to understanding the numerous paradoxes running through the president’s foreign policy.  He is a liberal Democrat at home yet regularly defies liberal pieties on national security, whether it is largely continuing George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism policies or waging an expansive campaign of drone warfare with secret “kill lists.”  It explains why he would nominate John Brennan, his top counterterrorism adviser and chief architect of the drone strategy, as CIA director even though liberal opposition derailed his appointment to the same post four years ago.

The Obamian worldview helps account for the shabby treatment the president accorded to the late Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Holbrooke was the very personification of the Vietnam analogy, having begun his diplomatic career in that country and then serving on the U.S. delegation to the 1968 Paris peace talks.  But when he attempted to draw parallels between LBJ’s escalation in Vietnam and Obama’s Afghan troop surge during a White House meeting in the fall of 2009, the president abruptly cut him off.  As the New York Times reported, an impatient Mr. Obama exclaimed, “Richard, do people really talk like that?”  A further rebuke came in Obama’s December 2009 address at West Point announcing the Afghan surge, in which he dismissed the Vietnam analogy as “a false reading of history.”

Finally, it explains why Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was the president’s first preference over John Kerry to head up the State Department.  She served as Obama’s chief foreign policy adviser in his first White House run and is an exemplar of the Obamian worldview.  In his book, Mann has an illuminating passage recounting her annoyance while working in the Kerry presidential effort that the ghosts of Vietnam had hijacked the foreign policy debate in 2004:

What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were re-litigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, ‘Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?’ ” she said. “And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?’ recalled Rice.  “We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover,” Rice said about the Obama team.  “It is not the frame of reference for every decision – or any decision, for that matter.  I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s.

To be sure, there is strong overlap in many views between President Obama and Mr. Hagel, including on the Afghanistan troop withdrawal and the paring of the Pentagon budget.  But their different conceptual starting points are already evident in at least one area: Hagel has taken a much more relaxed position regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions than what Obama has staked out publicly.  Indeed, it will be difficult for the president to continue insisting that “all options are on the table,” including the resort to military action, after expending valuable political capital to bring on board a Defense Secretary who thinks otherwise.  Another possible rift, foreshadowed by the Brennan appointment, is over the drone campaign’s morality and foreign policy utility.

*There is an interesting parallel here: John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, gave serious consideration to picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate, despite the fact that Lieberman just eight years earlier was part of the Democratic presidential ticket.  For all the handwringing about excessive partisanship in U.S. politics, it’s worth noting that the two main presidential candidates just four years ago were open to the idea of selecting persons from the opposite party as their running mate.

This commentary was originally posted on Monsters Abroad.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.