Obama’s new national security team goes to war

President Barack Obama officially nominates Chuck Hagel as Secretary for Defence. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

Battle is being joined in Washington, where President Barack Obama, has nominated a former Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, to be the next Secretary of Defense.

He has also nominated John Brennan, his current counterterrorism adviser and a veteran of the intelligence community in the Clinton and Bush administrations, to be the Director of Central Intelligence (or DCI - there is no position called CIA Director, although you will see it in the media).

They join Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and 2004 presidential nominee, tapped by Obama to be the next Secretary of State. While all three will likely ultimately win confirmation, Obama’s new national security team – and particularly Hagel – must prepare for the most bruising cabinet confirmation fight in nearly a quarter of a century.

President Obama formally nominates John Brennan to be Director of Central Intelligence - or the head of the CIA. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

The United States constitution requires that the Senate approve presidential nominations for Supreme Court justices, cabinet officers, and agency heads.

Although all nominees must submit to thorough background screenings (you wouldn’t want someone who could be blackmailed over an extramarital affair like recent DCI David Petraeus), and although senators will often present hostile questions to nominees in confirmation hearings in an attempt to embarrass them or damage the president politically, it is rare that even an opposition majority in the Senate will actually vote down a nomination.

The last time that this happened was with another former Republican senator selected to be Secretary of Defense. In 1989, incoming President George HW Bush picked fellow Texan John Tower, but background investigations revealed a history of intemperate gambling, drinking and womanising and the Democratic majority rejected him. (Bush’s substitute, who was approved easily, was Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney.)

Former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has been nominated as Secretary of State. EPA/Shawn Thew

In this instance, the dynamics are surprising and speak to domestic politics as much as foreign policy. Ironically, Kerry, the liberal lawmaker and former party standard bearer, has enjoyed the most support of the three nominees among conservative Republicans, while the same senators have denounced Brennan and Hagel.

Obama was known to be considering his representative to the UN, Susan Rice, for the position at State, but she withdrew herself when Republicans signaled that they would oppose her and use the hearings to try to tar the administration over the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which has become a cause celebre for the Right.

With Kerry, who has expressed an interest in being chief diplomat for years, however, Republicans smell an opportunity to pick up his Senate seat in a special election. Republican Scott Brown, who won an upset victory to claim the other Massachusetts seat in a 2010 special election, was just defeated but remains popular and would be a formidable candidate. Some Republicans have threatened to block a vote on Kerry until outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on Benghazi, but otherwise expect an easy confirmation process.

Obama considered Brennan to lead the CIA when he assumed office four years ago, but the potential DCI nomination ran into opposition from Democrats who were troubled by his role in President George W. Bush’s War on Terror.

Brennan had supported the implementation of rendition and enhanced interrogations, as well as immunity for telecommunications companies that had provided the intelligence community with information that was outside the legal limits of domestic surveillance.

The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last year that killed Ambassador Chris Stephens has become a hot political issue for Republicans. EPA/Stringer

While some Democrats who opposed Brennan in 2009 now say that they are prepared to support him, Brennan is also now seen as a proponent of the widening use of aerial drone strikes (and extrajudicial killings) as a tool of covert warfare.

Critics of the Petraeus tenure at the CIA had already charged the Agency with mutating from an intelligence agency into a paramilitary force, and the Brennan nomination will reopen that debate.

Republican Senator John McCain, whose experience as a POW in Vietnam has made him a strong critic of the use of torture even while he supports all other conservative national security positions, has signaled that he intends to use Brennan’s hearings to critically examine the Obama administration in this regard as well.

Finally, the one nominee who might actually be in peril is Hagel, a conservative Vietnam veteran who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during 1997-2009 but who now must testify before it with enemies on both left and right.

Liberals are wary of Hagel leading the Pentagon because he was a vocal opponent of allowing gays to serve in the military, a policy that was only enacted last year after two decades or rancorous debate. Some grumble more generally that Democrats need to buck their habit of regularly picking Republicans for Secretary of Defense to try to show that they are “tough” on national security. But Hagel is currently reaching out to gay rights groups and retains a number of Democratic friends in the chamber. It would seem unlikely that several Democrats would actually defect and humiliate President Obama.

It is among his former colleagues in the Republican caucus, and in conservative interest groups, that Hagel will face his most concerted opposition. Without Democratic defections they will not have the numbers to defeat him, but they have signaled that they intend to make his confirmation politically costly for the White House.

CIA drone attacks in Pakistan have killed many anti-American militants and are deeply unpopular with the wider population. EPA/MK Chaudry

The animus stems from the fact that Hagel was, while reliably conservative on fiscal and domestic social issues and an early supporter of the Iraq War, an increasingly vocal critic of the Bush War on Terror and the neoconservative agenda of regime change through military intervention.

By the time he declined to run for a third term in 2008, he was openly clashing with McCain, his party’s nominee, over these issues and his standing as a Republican became questionable, particularly as he seemed to support Obama and later donated money to a Nebraska Democrat running for Senate.

While some Republican congressional leaders have stated that they will oppose Hagel because they believe he seeks to retreat from American leadership in the world, many are stating that they cannot support him because he is anti-Israel, with some going far as to suggest that he is anti-Semitic and claim that he has made negative remarks about “the Jews”.

Hagel has stood by past comments that he believes that the interests of the United States rather than Israel should determine his votes on Middle East policy. His defenders have charged his critics with being neoconservatives who really oppose him because he would block their ultimate goal, a preemptive strike against Iran in the name of defending Israel against a potential nuclear attack, something that Hagel has cautioned would ultimately require enormous sacrifice.

Barring any embarrassing revelations rising from his past, the best option for Hagel’s foes to stop him would be to filibuster his nomination (use Senate procedures to prevent debate from ending and thus ensuring that there is never a vote). Conservatives have shown a willingness to use chamber rules to prevent confirmation votes in the past.

The 111th United States Senate members. Democrats are trying to change the rules to prevent “filibustering” and other delaying tactics. United States Senate

Moderate Republican Governor William Weld was blocked from becoming ambassador to Mexico (on the grounds that he was weak on drug enforcement) and James Hormel’s nomination to be ambassador to Luxembourg was filibustered because he was gay.

But filibustering the nominee for Secretary of Defense is another matter, and particularly because members of the expanded Democratic majority in the Senate are currently pushing to revise the rules to make such parliamentary tactics more difficult. If Republicans attempt to thwart Obama’s nomination of Hagel, it could push senior Democrats who are currently skeptical of rewriting the chamber’s rules to accept reform. Blocking Hagel would probably not be worth the cost.

So, even as Kerry sails forward unopposed, Brennan proceeds cautiously along the front lines, and both sides dig their trenches before the coming Hagel skirmish, it seems reasonable to project that Obama’s new team will be confirmed.

Kerry and Hagel, the two veterans of both Vietnam and the Senate, are expected to work unusually well together, and to support White House efforts to trim the military, another contentious fight in Washington.

What remains to be seen are how this new team of insiders will face the diplomatic and security challenges bound to arise in Obama’s second term.