New war cabinet: Hagel and Kerry will give Obama clout with the generals

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

By Brian M Downing

President Obama has nominated a pair of new cabinet secretaries in his foreign policy team, John Kerry for the State Department and Chuck Hagel for the Defense Department.

They are both reasonably well respected in congress, where both served, and they are both decorated veterans of the Vietnam War. They have been chosen for their experience in world affairs and at least as importantly for their usefulness in impending policy debates regarding Iran and Afghanistan.

John Kerry and Chuck Hagel

Less than a year ago, an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, by Israel and/or the U.S., seemed imminent.

Assassinations and terrorist attacks took place and a number of U.S. military assets were deployed to the Gulf. Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu was never able to build a consensus for war in his own cabinet or public, and several Israeli generals and intelligence officials cautioned against attacking Iran. Some of them did so in public.  One, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, did so rather famously on Sixty Minutes.

Nor was there substantial support in the U.S. The president and several military figures were wary of another war, and polling data showed the American public had a marked preference for staying with sanctions and diplomacy.

Nonetheless, the issue may again come to the fore, either from renewed Israeli pressure, from a misstep by Iran, or from an unforeseen event in the volatile region. The president will have stronger support inside State and the Pentagon to keep calm.

Though the president and the generals were substantially in step on Iran, there has been, and will continue to be, significant political and philosophical differences between the president and the generals on Afghanistan.

The president, it will be recalled, convened a series of meetings in 2009 to find a new policy for Afghanistan after eight years of costly failure and growing insurgency. Reports suggest that the president was intimidated by the generals, though his uncharacteristically passive demeanor more likely masked disdain for a caste that had supported polices in Iraq and Afghanistan he deemed wrongheaded.

The president was angered by the options the military offered him, all of which were essentially unpromising troop escalations. An alternative strategy of counterterrorism was offered by Vice President Biden and a few domestic advisers, but their opinions were unsupported by military experience, and the generals won the day. The president reluctantly opted for a moderate surge with a limited duration.

Differences between the president and the generals will become increasingly salient as the withdrawal from Afghanistan proceeds.

The pullout will be more rapid than generals want and may be more complete than generals want – the so-called “zero option.” They do not want to see their twelve-year effort, confused and poorly directed though it too often was, result in the same ignominy that came after Vietnam. They offer no promising new strategies and have nothing to show for the many years in Central Asia, but they will invoke their expertise and request more time and money.

Chuck Hagel and John Kerry are veterans of the Vietnam War whose foreign policy outlooks were instilled during that conflict.

Over the years, Vietnam has become romanticized and trivialized by movies and bluster – or forgotten altogether – but the hard lessons of that war endure in many minds. Foremost among those lessons is profound mistrust of the confident scenarios issued by intelligence bureaus and perhaps more importantly, from generals, especially those with little if any combat experience.

Furthermore, Hagel and Kerry have been decorated for valor and wounds in combat, which confers an authority that will be almost incomprehensible to those who have never served. The military of course has its table of ranks but there is another prestige-order based ribbons for combat service – actual combat service, not simply service in wartime.

Our generals today have bestowed tiers of ordinary ribbons on themselves, but few if any have served in combat at the platoon or company level – a product of the absence of long wars after Vietnam.

They have served, ably and professionally, at battalion or brigade levels but these are significantly removed from the sort of service that Hagel gave in an Armored Personnel Carrier and Kerry in a patrol boat. That service – and the prestige it silently but unmistakably conveys – will not be lost in dialogs between the new cabinet secretaries and the generals. Nor was it lost on the president when he made these nominations.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

You must be logged in to post a comment Login