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How Will New Administration Nominees Affect Foreign Policy?

Jan 8, 2013
Originally published on January 13, 2013 9:02 am



Let's hear now two critical views of the foreign policy and national security team that President Obama is assembling for his second term. Yesterday, the president nominated his longtime aide John Brennan as director of the CIA. He named Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, as secretary of Defense.


Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute opposes these nominees. Vali Nasr, a former advisor to the Obama administration, supports the nominees, but has emerged as a critic of the president's policies. Pletka contends the president had far better choices than Chuck Hagel.

DANIELLE PLETKA: And instead, the president picks this man who has omni-directionally managed to offend everybody, whether it's Jews, homosexuals, Republicans or it's Democrats, he's really been out there with a track record that, to my mind, is mind-boggling. I don't get the choice.

INSKEEP: And can I just mention, he's been accused of being anti-Israel. His defenders have already leaped up before he was even nominated to state that a lot of his remarks on that score have been taken out of context. Is it fairer to say that he simply does not necessarily agree with the current Israeli government's current policies?

PLETKA: You know, that's a really common way of defending people who are hostile to the state of Israel for being the Jewish state. I don't want to indict the man by who's come out to support him, but any time that you get positive ratings by press TV in Iran, it's probably not a good sign.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr?

VALI NASR: Well, Senator Hagel's views on Iran and on Israel, they ought to be debated. But the key question is: to what extent will he have the perch in this job to actually formulate U.S. foreign policy on these areas. And I think he will not. I mean, Iran policy and Israel policy are very tightly managed by the White House.

That was the case in the first four years. And then, it's going to be the State Department that's going to be carrying the torch on negotiations with Iran, rallying the allies around sanctions with Iran. These are not going to be within the domain of the Defense Department.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask you both, what is the central job, the central duty of the next secretary of Defense going to be?

PLETKA: Clearly, it is going to be to manage the decline of American national security. What we're going to see in the coming months are huge fights between the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives on funding for the Defense Department. If Senator Hagel is confirmed, we are going to have in place someone who is a strong advocate of aggressive cuts at the Defense Department.

INSKEEP: Vali, you may not agree with the notion that he's there to manage the decline of American national security, but it is a brutal reality. Whoever is secretary of Defense is going to be having to do it with a lot less money than projected. It sounds like this is going to demand a lot of creativity, whether Hagel gets the job or not.

NASR: Well, I think creativity and also relations with Congress, and I think the reason why the president went with a Republican is that there would be a certain degree of relationship with the other side of the House in order to create bipartisan support for these changes.

INSKEEP: Danielle Pletka, is it a good idea to have a Republican, even if you're strongly opposed to this Republican?

PLETKA: I think that it's good to have somebody who's competent in the job, who's going to have the confidence of the men and women in the building and of our troops that he's going to make decisions that are consistent, yes, with the president's views, but that are protecting the interests of the Pentagon as a whole. I don't see Chuck Hagel as that man.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another nomination that was made yesterday; John Brennan to be the head of the CIA, something the president wanted to do some years ago, backed away from and now he's actually done it. What do you think of that nomination?

PLETKA: If I were John Brennan, I would be out there fanning the flames of the Chuck Hagel controversy because if this were the only nomination we were hearing about, I think that Brennan would have ended up being an extraordinarily controversial nominee.


PLETKA: Well, he's done a number of things. One of them was to talk about the important search for moderates within Hezbollah. Another one was to defend the notion of jihad as an important tenet of Islam. When the person in charge of counterterrorism at the White House starts describing jihad as something we need to understand, a legitimate tenet of Islam, I start to worry a little bit about it.

When it's taken in concert with his strange statements on Hezbollah and building up moderates and other activities that have caused a lot of concern, then I start to worry.

INSKEEP: Can I just, before we pick that up, I've just gone and looked up the statement that John Brennan made about jihad. He was giving a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and he basically said the United States should not talk about jihadists because Muslims hearing those statements will have different definitions of jihad in their minds.

I'm wondering if that's just not an effort to talk to the world in a way that the world doesn't misunderstand, as opposed to some sign that he's a secret jihadist.

PLETKA: I don't think anybody suggested he's a secret jihadist, just that he doesn't understand what he's talking about. And that's the kind of condescending claptrap that gets us in a lot of trouble. I really don't need anybody at the White House teaching the world about what they should properly say about Islam. We all know what jihadists are.

Arabs refer to jihadists and they're not talking about the Koranic observation of learning that Mr. Brennan seems to think he's referring to.

INSKEEP: Isn't this kind of what the Bush administration was focused on for many years, talking about Islam the right way?

PLETKA: You bet.

INSKEEP: And you disagree with that.

PLETKA: And they stunk at it. It was Orwellian. I condemned it when they did it and I think equally little of it in the Obama administration.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask, what do you think the defining challenge of the second term is going to be when it comes to foreign policy. This is an administration, of course, that's trying to wind down a war in Afghanistan, that's trying to make a big pivot to East Asia. And there are so many other things going on that may be beyond the administration's control. What's the defining challenge?

NASR: Well, I think, you know, the first time, our foreign policy was based on a set of assumptions that are not holding. Number one, is that we thought that we could be done with them at (unintelligible). We just pack up and go to Asia.

INSKEEP: Didn't happen.

NASR: It didn't happen and then we also thought going to Asia is going to be simple, is not going to be fraught with new challenges. We're finding that China and Japan are beginning to butt heads, that China and Southeast Asian countries are developing difficulty. And it doesn't seem like we've actually stopped to take in the pulse and decided to recalibrate things.

Secondly, it's much more evident that the administration continues to be primarily focused on domestic issues. So there's the fiscal issues, there's gun control, there's a whole set of things that the administration wants to do in the second term. They're fairly ambitious, which means that, you know, foreign policy is going to continue to play the second fiddle.

And you have a world that is in turmoil, and I think what you would like to see at this turning of the page with the administration is that we show willingness to take stock of where we were and accept the fact that, you know, many of those assumptions are no longer holding and it's time for a new strategy.

INSKEEP: Danielle Pletka, you get the last word.

PLETKA: I think that the financial challenges are going to be very substantial. I think that there is a substantial and growing majority of people in the United States and especially in our government in both parties who really do want to see the United States turn inward. It's going to be a challenge for every one of us who believes in internationalism and the opportunity to hide behind the budget is a golden one for those who are neo-isolationists.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is a former advisor to the Obama administration and among other things, is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks very much for coming by.

NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Danielle Pletka is a vice president of foreign defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Good to talk with you also.

PLETKA: Always a pleasure.

INSKEEP: And you've been hearing them both right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.