With Hagel on side, Obama looks set for Middle East scrap

By Jonathan Cummings, February 28, 2013
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Fighting mood: Barack Obama (Photo: AP)

Fighting mood: Barack Obama (Photo: AP)

President Obama’s nominee for Defence Secretary, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, has been confirmed by the Senate, ending several weeks of deeply acrimonious hearings in Congress.

Despite the narrow margin of the final vote, Mr Hagel’s appointment is an important political victory for Mr Obama, whose nomination of a Republican with a controversial record on foreign affairs carried some risk. After Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her candidacy as Secretary of State over concerns about the handling of the attack on US diplomats in Benghazi, Mr Obama was not willing to allow two high-profile nominees be blocked by Congress, and stood firm.

Concerns raised during the hearings, particularly that he is too soft on Iran, Syria and Hizbollah, and will be too hard on Israel, are likely to linger. Distancing itself from the vitriol of the domestic American debate, Israel appears to have adopted a more circumspect attitude, with Chemi Shalev of Haaretz noting the Hebrew phrase “this is what we’ve got, and this is what we’ll have to win with”. In any case, Mr Hagel’s more immediate concerns are likely to include managing the draw-down of US troops from Afghanistan, questions over its drone strategy and, most immediately, vast cuts to the defence budget unless a last-minute resolution is found.

Above the noise, largely within the Beltway, Mr Obama’s nomination of Mr Hagel has the marks of a second-term presidency more willing to take risks, free of concerns about re-election. His confirmation may further embolden the president. Mr Obama’s announcement of a first visit to Jerusalem indicate his determination to address the conflict which he believes is casting a shadow over America’s relationships with Arab and Muslim countries. He also clearly wants to tackle his poor relations with Israel — which could hamper efforts to confront Iran and to handle the collapse of Syria. Apparently undeterred by his costly and unsuccessful intervention in Israeli-Palestinian affairs in his first term, he ensured that Secretary of State John Kerry left Jerusalem off his agenda when embarking on his first foreign tour, leaving the field clear for his own visit.

The timing, just four days after the final date by which Benjamin Netanyahu must present his new government to the Knesset, carries two messages. Firstly, he would prefer Mr Netanyahu to form a government that is willing to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. Secondly, Obama will attempt to inject a sense of urgency into both Israelis and Palestinians.

His nomination of Mr Hagel showed that Mr Obama is in fighting mood.

Jonathan Cummings is a writer based in New York

Last updated: 1:45pm, February 28 2013