All the President's men: Barack Obama names his national security team

President Obama has nominated the three men he wants in his national security team. So what do they tell us about how he sees America's place in the world?

Maybe it was the Hawaiian air, the relief at averting the fiscal cliff or the fact that he won the election and not Mitt Romney, but President Barack Obama has a certain swagger this New Year. Look at his latest cabinet nominations; he knows exactly who he wants to lead his national security team in his second term.

Turning to Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State was not a wildly brave move. Mr Kerry’s friendships on Capitol Hill, established during his long political career, are deep enough to ensure a smooth confirmation process. But tapping former Senator Chuck Hagel and his anti-terrorism advisor John Brennan this week to lead the Pentagon and the CIA has made everyone sit up, because both are bound to face fierce questioning before the Senate gives its necessary approvals.

But Mr Obama is not doing this for the pleasure of a brawl or to flay the neo-cons (who wonder who would be taking these jobs if Romney had won). He wants Hagel and Brennan for two reasons: he likes them and he and trusts them, and they fit precisely into his vision of how America should project its power going forward, a “light footprint” that emphasis practicality and effectiveness over any kind of foreign policy ideology.

Each man agrees with the President’s view that putting boots on the ground is the option of last resort for reasons of gold and blood, and that America should focus on multilateral alliances as well as new technology, including drone- and cyber-attacks, to answer global threats. And they will take their posts, if confirmed, at a time when deficit reduction will require an unflinching series of defence spending cuts. 

“These are three men well suited to that task,” confirms Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser. Both Hagel and Brennan are war-sceptics, and all three favour diplomacy when it comes to preventing Iran from establishing a nuclear arsenal. Their views come is in part because all have served at the sharp ends of the departments they are chosen to head. Kerry served in the Navy in Vietnam and won three Purple Hearts before taking over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Hagel is also a Vietnam veteran who earned two Purple Hearts; Brennan spent 25 years climbing the rungs at the CIA. As Mr Obama put it, they “understand the consequences of decisions that we make in this town”.

Hagel would be a soft touch for no one. The principle reason so many in his own party are suspicious of him (and why Mr Obama appreciates him) was his willingness publically to berate George W Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq (though he supported it at the outset) and to record his opposition to the troop surge that eventually returned a degree of order to the country. Kerry likewise voted for the invasion but opposed the war. That Hagel broke ranks with his own party on Iraq and has stated his opposition to a military strike on Iran still rankles with his old Republican colleagues.

Hagel is already under great scrutiny, and it surely won’t help him that a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Tehran welcomed his nomination, adding that Iran was hopeful it would herald “practical changes” to US foreign policy. Not only has Mr Hagel in the past publicly decried the notion of taking military action to force Iran off the path towards nuclear weapons, while in the US Senate he twice voted against imposing new sanctions on the country while advocating negotiations as the only sensible means of changing the minds of its leadership. America’s allies also want to know what kind of Secretary of Defence Hagel would be. One of his first acts could be to accelerate the withdrawal from Afghanistan, however unpopular that would be with the generals.

“It’s hard to believe [Hagel] would support commanders in the field as much as previous secretaries,” Michael O’Hanlon, a military scholar at the Brookings Institution told USA Today. “I believe his previous statements suggest he’d support a fast drawdown.”

At CIA headquarters in Virginia, Mr Brennan, an Arabic speaker and expert on Arab cultures, would doubtless build on what has been his largest task since arriving in the White House in 2009: evolving America’s capacity to neutralise the threat of al-Qa’ida and affiliated groups, including through the fast-expanding use of lethal drones in parts of Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia – by any means, in fact, that does not as a first resort envisage vast deployments of military personnel.

Obama’s choices: New foreign affairs team

John Kerry, Secretary of State

Who is he? John Forbes Kerry was born in Aurora, Colorado, in 1943. Won three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam in 1968-9. Became a lawyer after leaving the navy before entering the senate in 1984.

Where has he come from? Kerry has been a Senator for Massachusetts since 1985. Won the democratic nomination and ran in the 2004 presidential election against George W Bush. Current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

What does he stand for? Kerry is a dove, despite voting for the invasion of Iraq. Said US was responsible for war crimes in Vietnam, and made his Iraq war opposition a main theme of his presidential campaign. Pro-Israel, he believes military action in Iran is the “last resort” and that climate change is “biggest long term threat” to security.

What has he said in the past? “I have confidence that there is a way forward [on tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions], and I’ve always believed that the diplomatic route is the route that we ought to put our first best effort into.” To CNN, 25/4/2012

In the in-tray Two of his biggest priorities are Russia and China. Xi Jinping is expected to be nominated as President in March, and Kerry will be watching closely for signs of how he will deal with the West. Relations with Moscow are lower than at any point since the end of the Cold War after the Magnitsky affair. Both are key to any diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. He will also be keeping a close eye on Iran, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be replaced in elections in June.

Chuck Hagel, Defence Secretary

Who is he? Hagel, 66, is from North Platte, Nebraska. After serving in Vietnam – from where he returned with two Purple Hearts and shrapnel in his chest – he made a fortune in the cellphone industry.

Where has he come from? Hagel served two terms as Republican Senator for Nebraska, retiring in  2009. He has been co-chair of Obama’s intelligence advisory board.

What does he stand for? Hagel’s view of military action is said to have been shaped by his experiences in Vietnam, and he once vowed to “do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war”. His record on Iran and Israel has stirred the most controversy. He appears opposed to a military strike against Iran and spoken of the influence of the “Jewish lobby” on Congress.

What has he said in the past?  “Engagement is not appeasement. Diplomacy is not appeasement. Great nations engage. Powerful nations must be the adults in world affairs. Anything less will result in disastrous, useless, preventable global conflict.” Brookings Institution speech, 2008.

In the in-tray Hagel will have his hands full, not least with the winding down of US entanglement in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is also facing deep budget cuts, while there remain challenges in Syria, Iran, and North Korea.

John Brennan, CIA director

Who is he? The 57-year-old has spent 25 years at the CIA in a variety of posts, and became the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center during George W Bush’s first term.

Where has he come from? As Barack Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, he is a key member of his inner circle. He played a critical role in the planning of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

What does he stand for? Brennan is known for having defended the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation programme, which critics said equated to torture, though he later toned down his support for the scheme. As a key architect of the US drone strikes, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, he has come under fire for civilian lives lost as a result of the strikes.

What has he said in the past? “There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has, in fact, used against the real hardcore terrorists... It has saved lives,” Brennan said in 2005. 

In the in-tray Having led the Obama team’s efforts to curb the growth of terror groups in North Africa and the Middle East, Brennan will likely pay particular attention to the conflict in Mali. As targets for the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan dwindle, strikes will focus on Yemen.

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