OWLS HEAD, Maine — If the fiscal cliff deal — same road, same can, another kick — was not an overwhelming victory for President Obama, it sure fortified his backbone and inspired him to a more aggressive stance against his die-hard Republican opposition.
Looking down the road two months to the upcoming need to raise the debt ceiling, Obama warned: "If Congress in any way suggests they're going to tie up negotiations over debt-ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation, I will not play that game."
Exactly how he will stiff-arm the Republicans on the issue is unclear, but his statement is certainly categorical enough.
The fiscal cliff win coming hard on the heels of the Susan Rice rebuff — as well, perhaps, as a week in Hawaii — clearly invigorated the president. For whatever reason, he was unwilling to dig in his heels on backing Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, though Rice had nothing to do with the policies that led to the killing of the American ambassador in Libya, nor was she involved with the preparation of the talking points on Benghazi that those same die-hard Republicans used to bring her down.
But if she was a delayed victim of the Benghazi terrorist attack, perhaps Obama, and the country, lucked out. Forced to ditch Rice, he ended up nominating Senator John Kerry whose foreign policy expertise, diplomatic gravitas, and negotiating skills are in fact a far better fit for the top diplomatic post than Rice's. And regardless of her strengths or weaknesses, picking another, much younger and less seasoned woman to follow Hillary's well-acclaimed performance would surely have been set Rice up for an ongoing, unfair comparison with Hillary that Kerry won't face.
But Kerry was just the first half of a winning Obama two-step to fill his most important cabinet positions. Who knows, perhaps Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense was a reverse-Rice maneuver: Obama hadn't made up his mind yet if he wanted him, but once Hagel was floated for the position, and then viciously attacked by those same die-hard Republicans, wimp-factor fear set in and Obama felt compelled to proceed with Hagel.
Kerry and Hagel: hard to imagine a better team as Obama winds down Afghanistan, cuts back on defense spending, and threads the Middle East needle with avoidance of unnecessary conflict and over-reach his key goals.
Neo-conservative Republicans who backed the Iraq and Afghan wars have long had it in for Hagel for becoming such a vociferous opponent of both. Even in today's America, where the past is neither prologue nor lesson but merely forgotten, attacking Hagel for being against two unnecessary and unpopular wars is an obvious non-starter.
So Hagel's occasional, and refreshing, blunt talk on Israel has become the focus for the Hagel opposition, who denounce him for being anti-Israel in much the same way that MItt Romney accused Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus."
That's a canard that even strong supporters of Israel have difficulty swallowing. And citing the fact that Hagel once referred to the "Jewish lobby" and not the "Israel lobby" as evidence of his anti-Semitism shows just how desperate the anti-Hagel forces are. Even Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to use the terms interchangeably, insisting that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as the "Jewish state."
The public position that Hagel has taken with regard to Israel is not only defensible but wise: "The United States and Israel must understand that it is not in their long-term interests to allow themselves to become isolated in the Middle East and the world," Hagel said a few years back, a prescient comment considering the recent overwhelming defeat the US and Israel suffered at the UN's General Assembly.
"Neither can allow themselves to drift into an ‘us against the world’ global optic or zero-sum game." The "us against the world" that Hagel warned about is increasingly Netanyahu's preferred position.
Finally, from Hagel: "It is in Israel's interest, as much as ours, that the United States be seen by all states in the Middle East as fair. This is the currency of trust." As George W. Bush made obvious during his presidency, siding always with Israel has serious drawbacks; negotiating a two-state solution became impossible in large part because the US no longer acted as an honest broker.
A long-term and important friend of Israel, The New York Times' Tom Friedman has been emphatic in defending Hagel against the trumped-up anti-Israel charges: "If ever Israel needed a US defense secretary who was committed to Israel's survival, as Hagel has repeatedly stated — but who was convinced that ensuring that survival didn't mean having America go along with Israel's self-destructive drift into settling the West Bank and obviating a two-state solution — it is now."
Where there are legitimate policy concerns, the Senate has every right to question Hagel on his views regarding Iran. My own belief, stated frequently in my GlobalPost columns, is that there is one thing worse than Iran getting a nuclear weapon (besides, as neo-con hero George W. Bush did, letting North Korea get one) and that is attacking Iran in order to prevent it. Use sanctions, negotiations, carrots, sticks, but don't confuse the means with the end game.
Quite apart from the risk of unintended military consequences throughout today's exploding Middle East that an attack on Shiite Iran might precipitate — not to mention the quite obvious worldwide economic calamity of a closing of the oil transport lanes through the Gulf of Hormuz — an attack by the US or Israel would harden the leadership's determination to acquire nuclear weapons even as it fueled a nationalistic reaction that would strengthen the unpopular mullah-led government.
It is not at all certain that Iran intends to build a bomb; Indeed most analysts believe they intend to develop the capacity to do so but not to take the final steps toward creating an actual nuclear arsenal. And while the three decade-old theocratic government may not, unfortunately, be about to go the way of Mubarak or Qaddafi, its popularity is at or close to an all-time low.
One could argue that to take the threat of military action off the table, a position that Hagel supports, would be to weaken our hand were we to enter negotiations with Iran. But an equally strong argument can be made that it will be impossible for Iran to enter negotiations so long as they remain under such a public threat from the US.
What's interesting, looking at the Hagel controversy in a broader context, is how he represents moderate Republican internationalist views from a time before George W. Bush's radicalization of Republican foreign policy. Bush, whose lack of international experience was red meat for Cheney and Rumsfeld, ended up reducing Republican foreign policy to the neo-con approach of Senators Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain versus the isolationist views of Senator Rand Paul. Obama is using Hagel and Kerry to re-assert a rational, moderate approach to foreign policy that Republicans once embraced.
As the November election showed, domestically, the Republican Party is moving along the dodo-traveled road to extinction. With their reaction to Hagel's nomination, they're exhibiting the same self-destructive approach on foreign policy.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.