I’m pretty confident that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel didn’t want to be fired, but some part of him has to be pretty happy that he’s being shown the exit. Hagel was confirmed to the position at a time when the Obama administration’s foreign policy emphasized the withdrawal of American troops from combat roles and the repudiation of national security “hawks.” Going into last weekend he was tasked with implementing an uncertain and open-ended military strategy in Iraq and Syria while his boss was extending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve been hired to do a job only to have the job change radically once you get in the door. It’s dispiriting.
But with Hagel out, we’re now facing down the miserable spectacle of a Senate nomination hearing to install his replacement. And with Republicans set to take over the Senate in just over a month, it’s almost guaranteed to get very ugly. This is partially because the default Republican position when it comes to something Barack Obama wants is to very purposefully make everything terrible. But it’s also because Republicans are in the middle of a “we told you so” reverie about the Iraq War, and a nomination hearing for a top national security position is a fine opportunity for them to grandstand.
The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has been a boon for the long-since discredited neoconservative wing of the GOP. They’ve long maintained that the Iraq War had been “won,” but Obama threw it all away by insisting that every single American combat troop leave the country. As a result, they argue, ISIS was able to rampage across the Fertile Crescent. That’s nonsense: It was the Iraqis who insisted we remove our combat troops; the corrupt and ineffective regime in Baghdad (that we’d propped up and funded with little to no oversight) exacerbated sectarian tensions within the country and created the environment in which ISIS thrived; and the Iraqi army we spent years building, training and funding was as corrupt and ineffective as the government it represented. Leaving a few thousand troops behind, Republicans argue, would have prevented all of this, even though the presence of more than 100,000 U.S. troops over several years wasn’t enough to eradicate the insurgency or keep Maliki in line.
Republican candidates who campaigned on foreign policy during the midterms made some variation of this argument: Obama withdrew from Iraq and then ISIS happened! It’s all but certain that Obama’s nominee, whoever it is, will be grilled by Republicans on whether they believe the “surge” was a good idea and whether we should have withdrawn all our forces. That very thing happened to Hagel during his nomination hearing: “Were you correct or incorrect when he said the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam?” John McCain thundered at Hagel. (Hagel was completely unprepared to answer the question.)
If, as literally every single media outlet reported upon news of Hagel’s departure, former undersecretary for defense policy Michele Flournoy is at the top of Obama’s nomination list, then the Iraq withdrawal question will be hotly debated. Flournoy served during the final negotiations over pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, and her name came up recently as part of Leon Panetta’s book tour, which saw the former defense secretary attack the White House for its policy on troop withdrawal (a policy Panetta stridently defended while in office). Panetta name-checked Flournoy as his chief advocate in arguing for a residual force to be left behind in Iraq: “Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
Flournoy also served as co-chair of the Obama campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee in 2012, and in that role she defended the administration’s policy on pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq. Appearing on PBS opposite a Mitt Romney surrogate in October 2012, she rebutted the suggestion that the administration had deliberately “undermined negotiations” on leaving a residual force in Iraq:
Look, we came to a point where the U.S. clearly offered a residual force to continue to help Iraq with its security challenges and develop the force.
Maliki decided that he was uncomfortable taking the necessary legal framework to protect our troops through his parliament, because he was worried about a no-confidence vote, you know, that any excuse on a controversial vote — you know, that that would create an excuse to give him a no-confidence vote.
He was very worried about the impact on his tenure. And so he said, we’re not willing to do it.
And at that point, the secretary of defense and the president decided what anyone in their position would have, which is, you can’t keep thousands of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil without legal protections to ensure that they wouldn’t be subject to Iraqi laws, Iraqi courts and so forth.
That was the recommendation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It was clearly the right thing to do at that point. But this was a political decision by Prime Minister Maliki, not some technical issue in the negotiations.
And guess what? Pro-war conservatives are already attacking Flournoy for her advocating on behalf of the president on Iraq. And there’s an irony in this given that in the run-up to Hagel’s nomination, conservatives trolled the White House by embracing Flournoy as a more-qualified alternative to Hagel.
Of course, there is a way to avoid all this: Obama could just follow the advice of Very Serious People and nominate Joe Lieberman. He's a stalwart defender of the Iraq War and the newly christened co-chairman of No Labels. He’s the ideal candidate for the terrible people who define our national security debates.