There are two critical foreign policy related Cabinet positions – secretary of state and secretary of defense. While the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is not an official member of the president’s Cabinet, it has been considered as having Cabinet level rank by several recent presidents, including Barack Obama. The U.N. ambassador is in the chain of command of the State Department, as are other ambassadors. There will soon be new names offered by the president to fill both the secretary of defense and secretary of state positions.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice announced this week that she was withdrawing her name from consideration for the soon to be vacant position of secretary of state. The current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to leave her job in January. Rice drew fire from Republicans for parroting talking points that were false during interviews on five Sunday news programs concerning the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on September 11th. The talking points had apparently been prepared for her by the C.I.A. Whether Rice knew that the talking points were false, or whether she was unknowing and merely serving as a loyal spokesperson for the president and repeating what she was told to say, is unclear. What is clear today and apparently contemporaneously at the time of the attacks is that what happened in Benghazi did not arise from anger and riots over a video produced by Coptic Christians in the U.S. (as Rice claimed) , but were rather attacks planned and prosecuted by terrorist groups in Libya. Clearly, for a president involved in a tight re-election battle, the anger at the video story was a far more convenient explanation for what happened than the real terror attack story, especially when the president’s campaign had emphasized his success in killing Osama Bin Laden and weakening al-Qaida.
Opposition to the potential Rice nomination did not only come from some Republican senators. There were attacks from the left over Rice’s inept handling of African affairs during the time she served in the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. There were charges that Rice had been too cozy with some particularly vicious African heads of state, and had done little to prevent or stop the slaughter in Rwanda.
There were reports that Secretary Clinton was not enthusiastic about having Rice replace her, and preferred that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry get the nod. That now appears to be likely. There has been speculation that President Obama was reluctant to appoint Kerry since his open senate seat could fall to former Senator Scott Brown, a Republican who lost his bid for re-election in November, when Obama swept the state, and carried Democrat Elizabeth Warren to victory on his coattails. The reality is that in very liberal Massachusetts, Brown would be an underdog if he chose to run for the open seat, particularly if Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick decided to enter the race.
Kerry will be assured of easy confirmation if he is nominated to be secretary of state, which now seems likely. He served as Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and has very good relations with Republican Senator John McCain. Both Kerry and McCain are, of course, failed former presidential candidates and Vietnam veterans.
With regard to Israel, Kerry is a conventional Democrat. When he ran for President, his campaign issued statements suggesting he was Israel’s best friend in Washington, an exaggeration to be sure, but par for the course for a presidential nominee. More problematic has been Kerry’s consistently bad judgment as a senator on foreign policy matters, and earlier in his anti-war days.
In a lengthy interview with Charlie Rose in 2011 on the subject of U.S.-Israel relations, Kerry stayed on script as far as President Obama’s support for Israel (strong), the president’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (good), the need for a two-state solution, how opposition to Israel settlements in the West Bank has been a constant theme for several U.S presidents, how everyone knows what a final stage deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians would look like (the Clinton parameters from 2000), how demographic changes may force Israel’s hand (meaning of course that Israel is not now doing enough to promote peace), and how there is a closing window for successful peace talks to occur. This litany of conventional wisdom is repeated so often by so many people in the foreign policy establishment that most of them may actually think it is true.
Kerry added one personal touch in the Charlie Rose interview, a reflection of his many visits to and warm relations with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Other than Vogue Magazine editor Ann Wintour (herself a potential pick for U.S Ambassador to Britain or France), it is safe to say that no one has invested more than Kerry in the nonsense of Assad’s desire to reform Syria and make peace with Israel (achievable if only Israel agreed to return the Golan). Now, following the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrians by Assad in a desperate attempt to stay in power, Kerry has gone quiet on the Syrian front.
Kerry may be uninspiring and has often been wrong on many matters, but the J-Street crowd in the United States is not overly enthused with him, because they do not think he has been tough enough in attacking Israel over its settlements.
The rumored pick for Secretary of Defense , former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, is a different story entirely. Hagel has drawn enthusiastic praise and support for “not being a doormat for the Israel Lobby,” a comment offered by Steven Walt, a co-author of the mendacious book “The Israel Lobby.” Hagel was probably the least supportive Republican on matters relating to Israel during the years he served in the Senate. He seemed to take pride in his independence from his party on this issue, as well as in opposing the surge in Iraq, fighting sanctions or even the implied threat of military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and calling for big cuts in defense spending. Barack Obama seems to like federal spending of all kinds, except for defense. He seems to have found a soul-mate on that policy position in Hagel.
Politically, the Hagel pick, if it is made, is smart politics for President Obama. Americans seem to want the two parties to work together, and for a Democratic president to win re-election and then name a Republican (a Republican at one time at least) to run the Pentagon, looks like bipartisanship at its best. Other than some very strong supporters of the U.S-Israel relationship in the Senate, most Democrats will probably back the president and many Republicans will too. Given U.S-Israeli cooperation on the Iron Dome and the critical months ahead for making decisions both in Israel and the United States on what to do to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Hagel is certainly not what supporters of Israel would be looking for to run the Defense Department.
Some supporters of President Obama will say that the President has shown he has Israel’s back, so no one need worry about Chuck Hagel. After all, the buck stops in the Oval Office (or on the golf course or in Hawaii). But what does it say about a president who appoints Bashar Assad’s former best friend in the Senate to run the State Department, and Israel’s toughest critic from his days in the Senate, to run the Defense Department? That he has Israel’s back? Really?