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Is former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, a sharp critic of US counter-terrorism policy, still President Obama’s top choice to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary? Apparently he was, but a highly reliable Republican source with close ties to the US Senate armed services committee that must vote to confirm Hagel told me yesterday that Obama instead plans to name his current Navy secretary, Ray Mabus, to the post .
The reason? Mounting GOP opposition to Hagel of the kind that also doomed Obama’s first candidate for Secretary of State, Susan Rice, who ended up withdrawing in favor of Massachusetts senator John Kerry.
In fact, the campaign against Hagel is being led by the same troika of Republican senators that brought down Rice: Arizona’s John McCain, South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Expect to hear these three names a lot in the coming year as the fractious debate over the fiscal cliff gives way to equally contentious negotiations over immigration reform. The three have emerged as the key Republican power-brokers demanding concessions from Obama, exhausting his second-term political capital, even as their own party descends further and further into the abyss of tea party extremism.
Why is Hagel in trouble? Largely because McCain et al view him as a political traitor for opposing the Iraq War in 2001 and because Hagel is deemed insufficiently hawkish in his support of Israel and in his criticism of America’s “Great Satan” – Iran. If Obama’s political team had hoped to portray the Hagel appointment as a bipartisan gesture, no GOP senator is biting. And for good reason, perhaps: Hagel did just back Democrat Bob Kerrey in his successful bid to win Hagel’s old Senate seat, and for all intents and purposes, is a Democrat. Yet even leading pro-Israeli Democrats like Chuck Schumer, mindful of the growing chorus of GOP criticism of Hagel, have begun backing away from him, too.
Apparently, support for Mabus is also based on the lack of confidence among GOP senators for Obama’s number 2 and 3 choices for the post: Michele Flournoy, until recently Obama’s undersecretary of defense for policy, and the highest ranking female civilian in Pentagon history, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy secretary of defense. Flournoy and Carter have served loyally the past four years, largely taking their direction from Obama’s first defense secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and then from the current incumbent Leon Panetta, who is about to step down.
In fact, Carter was never seriously in the running for the post, insiders say. And despite a sterling record of political support for Obama, and high marks from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff for her handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan draw downs, the emerging consensus on Flournoy, who’s just 51, is that she’s still too young and inexperienced to function effectively on the world stage. So consider the irony: in place of a GOP appointment at defense, Obama’s being handed a Democrat – and it’s coming from his GOP opposition.
The choice of Mabus , in fact, seems deliberately calculated to fill the holes in the other candidates’ resumes. As the Secretary of Navy, Mabus is already a top defense manager, unlike Hagel, whose bureaucratic management abilities – including his notoriously brusque dealings with subordinates – are considered suspect. Mabus is also a former governor of Mississippi and is well-known to several Deep South GOP senators on the armed service committee – including fellow Mississippian Roger F. Vicker. And he has real – indeed celebrated – experience in the Middle East. As US ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President Clinton, he was given high marks for his handling of several major international incidents, including attacks from Yemen and Iraq in in 1994. He also oversaw the defense of the US embassy in Riyadh after a terrorist attack in 1995, a peculiarly salient fact given the controversy over Obama’s handling of the 2011 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Finally, Mabus is no mere politico or bureaucratic careerist: He sits on the board of several major corporations, including Enersys, the world’s largest manufacturer, marketer and distributor of industrial batteries. He even once pulled a Romney, shepherding another major company, Flowmax, through a messy bankruptcy. Mabus, therefore, is an unusual asset: a reliable mainstream player with a sterling diplomatic track record who just so happens to have strong ties to corporate America at a time when Obama is endeavoring to rebuild his frayed ties to big business.
Is it a done deal? Apparently, it’s close. But, in truth, Obama may want to think carefully before he dances to the latest GOP tune. Coming on the heels of his failure to stand up for Rice at State, his abandonment of Hagel will give the appearance that the president is once again refusing to expend capital on appointment that might really matter, policy-wise. Even worse, failing to nominate his Number 2 (Flournoy) as he did with John Kerry at State, will give the impression that Obama has no intention of moving forward with his oft-stated pledge to promote women to top positions in his government. With Hillary Clinton soon to depart at State, and virtually no chance that a woman will be named at Treasury, either, Obama’s cabinet may well be left looking like a throwback to the 1950s.
Take that as a sad measure of the enduring power of the GOP establishment – and the real limitations on Obama’s second-term “mandate” – despite the heady mood of triumphalism at the White House that first greeted the president’s re-election.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org