President Obama has now announced his nominees for three key national security slots in his cabinet. He has nominated a former Republican Senator, Chuck Hagel, to serve at the Pentagon, and his national security guru, John Brennan, to head the C.I.A. The President backed down on his initial choice (Susan Rice) to head the State Department, and instead nominated Senator John Kerry.
These individuals, should they be confirmed, would replace Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and Hillary Clinton—three consummate “insiders”, all buried up to their chins in national security conventional wisdom.
Panetta fought tooth and nail for the C.I.A. when others in the administration had the temerity to suggest that its officers be held accountable for the atrocities they committed. He remained committed to the escalation of the President’s war of terror using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. He acquiesced to the increased militarisation of an intelligence service which is supposed to help us avoid wars.
Petraeus, of course, is notorious for his “surge” in Iraq, which emphasised temporary, cosmetic military success at the expense of both civic engagement and any effort to recognise the all-too-real limits of a colonial-style military occupation of another country. He pushed the President into escalating the war in Afghanistan, helped to preside over its un-debated expansion into Pakistan, and paraded around the media studios, regularly overstepping that most essential of lines separating those in uniform who serve, and the civilian leadership which commands.
Clinton has, since her move to the Senate in 2000, reinvented herself as the arch neocon. A supporter of the disastrous war in Iraq, she was one of those in the President’s cabinet who urged escalation in Afghanistan. Her turn as Secretary of State has been remarkable primarily for its lack of any serious initiative, and its appalling response to the Arab Spring which saw the administration move from a fulsome to a selective embrace of retrograde thugs and reactionary dictators.
Given the moral and strategic failings represented by Obama’s wars, murders, and life-support-to-dictators program, one would think that the administration would be keen to turn the page on the long and sordid era in U.S. international relations which has seen us dismiss the welfare of peoples in other countries by casual recourse to our own “national security”, even when those actions imperil the public good. But instead, the President has turned to people who, by and large, will let this sorry consensus remain un-challenged if not strengthened.
The closest thing we’ll get to a national security apostate is Hagel. Republicans are up in arms, frothing with faux rage, because Hagel once noted that the Israeli lobby attempts to intimidate legislators—an observation that ought to be fairly un-controversial whatever your views on Israeli colonialism—and because he favoured dialogue rather than war with Iraq and Iran. These views apparently make him some kind of wild national security radical, bordering on being “unqualified”.
So what, at the end of the day, does it mean according to our tragic national security consensus for someone to be “qualified” to hold one of these key positions governing our international affairs?
Thomas Friedman recently suggested what many people believe—that we’re looking at the wrong sort of people altogether. He suggested education secretary Arne Duncan, first joking that bargaining with teachers’ unions would make North Korea a breeze, and then making a more serious point about the need to “[improve] educational outcomes for more young people...education is now the key to sustainable power ... For instance, it would be very helpful to have a secretary of state who can start a negotiating session with Hamas leaders (if we ever talk with them) by asking: ‘Do you know how far behind your kids are?’ That might actually work better than: ‘Why don’t you recognize Israel?’”.
Sure, it might not be as easy as that, but we know what doesn’t work: we’ve been trying it for the last 50 years and more. The reason all the “qualified” candidates for offices concerning our international relations are blood-stained war-mongers has to do with the fact that according to conventional wisdom, these offices should be occupied by fearful, aggressive people, as quick to take recourse to violence as to blustering, bellicose language calculated to generate ill-will or worse down the road.
Conventional wisdom in the national security world suggests that the occupants of these office should be focussed on exacerbating differences for cheap, short-term geopolitical “gains” that have nothing to do with the welfare of people in other countries or in our own. A willingness to negotiate is seen as a negative quality. A concern with the welfare of marginal populations in other places is seen as “weakness”. Human rights concerns are un-American. Common institutions undermine our security. Efforts to bring people together are naive.
None of this is entirely our current President’s fault. But this is perhaps the most glaring instance in which the man who was supposed to represent some sort of transcendental change decided—whether from some dreadfully-misconceived conviction or naked opportunism—to put his head down and go full steam ahead into the morass of disasters that our belligerent, anti-communitarian, self-absorbed, violence-obsessed foreign policy elites have been studiously laying out for us.