President Barack Obama announces in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, that he will name current Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough as his next chief of staff. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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.
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 can't be resolved according to the president's 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.
"Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war," Obama said in the scant two paragraphs he devoted to foreign policy in his second inaugural address. In an echo of the themes he promoted when he took office, he stressed diplomacy and engagement with enemies, along with the need to renew global institutions.
In his convivial confirmation hearings, Kerry echoed his new boss. He stressed, "We can't be strong in the world unless we are strong at home." American foreign policy, he insisted, "is not defined by drones and deployments alone."
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. (Will someone please tell me how this promise can be kept if we turn our backs on Afghanistan?)
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. I'd agree if there were any sign that this were possible. But since there is none, 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.
Don't 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. (In contrast, during the three amigos' trip to Kabul in 2008, Biden got so frustrated with Karzai that he threw his napkin on the table and walked out.)
But with three former senators already on the foreign policy team (including the president), why has Obama sought out another in Chuck Hagel? And since the president, veep and future secretary of state are already focused on military disengagement, why choose someone even more averse to using force than they?
I don't question Hagel because he's 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 Israel's security and his commitment to America's "historic bond" with the Jewish state. But what strengths does Hagel add to Obama's security team?
Although Hagel has some business experience, it isn't sufficient to help in the daunting task of judiciously paring back the defense budget. His "Republican" links aren't likely to help him win over fellow party members, since his views are to the left of Obama's.
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 can't see him breaking the current paralysis with any new ideas.
And on the one subject - Iran - where Hagel does deviate from his buddies, it's 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 isn't serious about a military option, no matter what Hagel says now. That, in turn, may make it less likely Tehran will make concessions in negotiations.
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.
- Trudy Rubin: email@example.com