Chuck Hagel and John Brennan Will Face Urgent Foreign Policy Threats From Day 1


President Obama’s second term cabinet is taking form. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been nominated to be secretary of state and ex-Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has been nominated as secretary of defense and his top counter terrorism adviser John Brennan was named to replace General David Petraeus as CIA director. That leaves Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner’s replacement to round out the big four (State, Defense, Treasury, Attorney General) cabinet posts, and a replacement for outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

The nomination of Kerry, Hagel, and Brennan completes the national security team, a top priority for Obama. The confirmation of Kerry is expected to be smooth sailing, while there are some questions surrounding Hagel and Brennan. Given the level of urgency and the complexity of issues, the Senate would do well to not drag out the process and allow the team to get to work.

Kerry, Hagel and Brennan, along with Vice President Joe Biden form a highly competent and experienced foreign policy and national security team. They have Obama’s trust and support, in the case of Biden and Kerry they are Obama’s foreign policy mentors.

The national security team was a top priority for Obama and they will have a laundry list of issues to address including:

1. U.S.-Afghanistan relations including the military draw-down in Afghanistan;

2. The threat of a nuclear Iran;

3. Israeli relations vis-à-vis Palestine, Hamas and Iran;

4. China’s challenge to America’s presence, influence and role in the Pacific, including the South and East China Seas;

5. U.S.– Syria relations and the conflict/war in Syria;

6. North Korean nuclear capability;

7. Drone warfare and the “disposition matrix;”

8. The growing threat suggested by evidence that so-called terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are partnering with South American drug cartels;

9. Military assistance to African nations battling the growth of terrorist groups throughout the continent;

10. Cyber terrorism targeting not only defense, military and intelligence but key ecosystems e.g. banking, health and energy. Secretary of Defense Panetta said “Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and hold them accountable for their actions that may try to harm America.”

Kerry, Hagel and Brennan will each have to deal with internal department issues as well. Kerry will have to deal with a department shaken by the events in Benghazi. The Accountability Review Board noted that there were system failures that contributed to the attack and subsequent deaths of Americans in Benghazi. Four state department officials resigned in the aftermath of the investigation. Kerry will have to restore morale and credibility in the wake of the report.

Hagel is taking over a Defense Department that is embroiled in a number of sexual harassment and/or assault lawsuits, a rise in suicides, inadequate support system for Veteran Affairs, and a country fatigued by a lengthy war. Brennan inherits a program that has some responsibility for gathering the intelligence that was missed or ignored in the Benghazi incident. He will also be expected to oversee such unconstitutional methods as warrantless wiretapping, and the capture of digital data.

All three will be facing budget cuts brought on by the threat of sequestration. Budget cuts can impact their ability to secure the consulates and embassies, gather credible and useful intelligence and address much needed improvement in veteran benefits.

Senator Hagel appears to have the toughest path to confirmation. “Sen. Lindsey Graham ( R-S.C.) called the Hagel choice an ‘in-your-face nomination by the president.'” Let’s hope that partisanship politics doesn’t get in the way of allowing the national security leadership team to get to work.