In February 2008, a helicopter transporting three U.S. senators had to make an emergency landing in Afghanistan. A crash was averted and all three Joe Biden, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel survived. Already friends, they bonded over the experience, say people who know them.
By TRUDY RUBIN
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Now these three amigos are set to reunite in the Obama Cabinet, Biden as veep, Kerry as secretary of state, and former Republican Sen. Hagel as secretary of defense although his confirmation hearings will be contentious. They will be working for another former Senate colleague, Barack Obama, whose worldview they echo in their statements and writing.
A team of rivals it is not. President Obama clearly intends to shape foreign policy in the White House, and has chosen a band of brothers to carry it out. Yet, given the huge foreign policy challenges he faces, choosing a team of the like-minded could have a real downside. It may not produce the strategic thinking needed when global crises cant be resolved according to the presidents script as happened repeatedly during his first term.
The president has made clear that over the next four years, he wants to focus on nation-building at home, not abroad. He wants to end current military engagements and avoid any new ones.
In his convivial confirmation hearings, Kerry echoed his new boss.
But when it came to dealing with the specific threats the country will face, Kerry, again like his boss, was more hazy. No clarity on how to leave Afghanistan without precipitating the return of global jihadis, or whether drones alone can prevent this despite a lot of moralizing by him and other senators about not abandoning Afghan women.
As for Syria, Kerry also echoed Obama, hewing to the U.S. position that we have to godfather negotiations between the opposition and the regime. But the U.S. refusal to aid the non-Islamist Syrian opposition with guns or money ensures that hard-core Islamists will triumph if Assad falls.
Dont get me wrong. I think Kerry is a good choice. He has met practically every world leader. His impressive diplomatic skills were on display in 2009 when, after hours of talks, he repaired a near-total break between U.S. diplomats and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
But with three former senators already on the foreign policy team (including the president), why has Obama sought out another in Chuck Hagel?
I dont question Hagel because he is allegedly anti-Israel. A host of former Republican colleagues and top Republican officials along with New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer have attested to his strong support for Israels security.
Haunted by his Vietnam experience, Hagel seems even more leery of military involvement than his two Senate friends or the president. In any cabinet debate over strategy say over policy on Syria I cant see him breaking the current paralysis with any new ideas.
And on the one subject Iran where Hagel does deviate from his buddies, its not clear what input he can offer. He has consistently opposed unilateral sanctions on Tehran and also opposed a military strike because he thinks the costs would outweigh the benefits. On this last point, he has a strong case to make.
But Iran is the one issue where the president, and Kerry, insist a military option must remain on the table and that containing Iran is not an option. Having been coached, Hagel will no doubt echo this position at his hearings. Yet his selection and his past stance against military action will be taken by Iran to mean that the White House isnt serious about a military option.
Rather than Hagel, Obama could have chosen someone from the business or policy communities who offered a different perspective than his legislative teammates. Instead we will have three Senate amigos helping their former colleague shape our strategy overseas.
To reach Trudy Rubin, send email to email@example.com.