WASHINGTON – Former Senator Chuck Hagel, a fairly liberal Republican from Nebraska is no longer US Secretary of Defense. Several media accounts indicate that he resigned “under pressure”. Of course, the official statement says that Hagel thought it was time for him to move on, after having supervised a two year transition, etc. But the consensus is that he was asked to leave by President Barack Obama.
This does not look good
We do not know the precise points of disagreement on policy between Obama and Hagel. But this sudden vacancy at the very top of the US national security apparatus, with the US fighting some kind of war in Iraq, while figuring out next steps in tormented Afghanistan does not look good.
America is facing difficult challenges, with no clear strategy. To make things worse, military spending is in steady decline due to the “sequester” and other imposed budgetary cuts, while US public opinion is not in favor of any new military adventures.
Obama wanted to end US military engagements. But new developments made this impossible. The ISIL threat that nobody saw coming changed almost everything in the Middle East. Now Iraq needs emergency help to repel the invaders, while the administration has been forced to enter the Syrian military theatre without any clear end game. At the same time, it appears that a quiet military disengagement from Afghanistan may not be possible.
Then we have Iran and its nuclear program. As of today, the word is that the negotiations will continue. But it is obvious that Tehran wants to hold on to its gains. In other words, Iran wants to retain the ability to produce nuclear weapons, if and when it would choose to do so. A hesitant and timid America has very few tools, if any, to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Then we have the festering crisis in Eastern Ukraine, with all its unpleasant ramifications regarding a deteriorated relationship with Moscow, while America needs to reassure nervous European NATO Allies about its continuing commitment to the defense of Europe.
Last but not least there is China’s meddling in its Asian neighborhood via bogus legal claims on a few islands that would extend its territorial waters, and therefore its maritime influence.
Look, all of these are major issues that can be dealt with only by a strong, well armed and resolute America that friends and enemies alike respect.
But America, while still the dominant world military power, is not that strong anymore while most observers would question its unity and determination to achieve almost anything requiring a sustained effort.
Timid response to ISIL
If we look at ISIL, crisis number one, so far at least the response to the Islamic State invasion of Iraq has been very modest. Instead of a crushing blow, we have seen plenty of small bombings here and there that have not forced ISIL to retreat. The Islamic State’s prestige is still intact. It controls a large territory in Syria and it keeps the Baghdad government and the Kurds in the North East on the defensive.
Short of a massive bombing campaign, an effort at least 10 times larger than what the US and its coalition partners have underway, ISIL will still be there in Northern Iraq and large parts of Syria when Obama will leave the White House in January 2017.
All this amounts to saying that, no matter who will be chosen to lead the Pentagon for the next two years, America faces large and possibly intractable problems. I say intractable because there is an obvious mismatch between available resources and will on one hand and the need to convince adversaries that we mean business.
ISIL sees that we are not going after them with all we’ve got. The Taliban in Afghanistan appreciates that some US troops will stay, but without conviction. Putin knows that he can do almost anything in Ukraine, without risking a major confrontation with America.
Tehran knows that America will never go to war with Iran in order to destroy its nuclear facilities. Therefore the mullahs can go on and on “negotiating” until final exhaustion will force Washington to accept a face-saving bad deal that in practice will allow Tehran to keep all or most of what it acquired. Finally, the leaders in Beijing understand that this risk averse America will not act in any serious way to block their creeping expansionism.
Find a new consensus on the national interest
In the final analysis, the real issue confronting America is not who will be chosen to replace Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. The real issue is to come up with a coherent and credible national security strategy based on a true consensus on our national interest.
Sadly, this fractured country in which all policy debates are now dominated by ideological extremists who believe that working to reach a consensus equals surrender is incapable of formulating anything coherent and credible on anything at all, be it immigration, health care, entitlement reform or national security.
And, quite frankly, the hope that the next President (Hillary Clinton? Jeb Bush?) will find the magic formula to fix all this may prove to be wishful thinking.