A soldier’s national security dream team

By Major General (ret.) Paul D. Eaton
January 4, 2013

President Barack Obama’s nomination of Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) for secretary of state, along with the potential appointment of former Senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, is an important step forward for the under-resourced State Department and the over-stressed Defense Department.

Kerry and Hagel share qualities and experiences sure to resonate with those who execute U.S. national security and foreign policy – on the battlefield and in the increasingly dangerous world of diplomacy.

Both men demonstrated great bravery in war and moral courage throughout their lives. Hagel, as an infantry sergeant and squad leader in Vietnam, was twice wounded, saved by his squad mate brother and then returned the favor. Kerry, not far away, operated riverine craft in an equally dangerous environment and sustained several wounds.

After such experiences, they understand the implications of deciding to use military force like few others in our civilian leadership. They know at a gut level that the decision to put our soldiers in harm’s way can traumatize those who have answered the call of duty, and affect their families, like few of life’s endeavors.

From a soldier’s perspective, I know their profound appreciation may temper Washington’s appetite to respond to foreign policy problems with military force. They can help drive a more balanced, economic or diplomatic response to the challenges we will surely face.

The moral courage each displayed is amply illustrated by their actions in the Senate. Hagel consistently challenged his own party’s war hawks and was declared unpatriotic by many fellow Republicans. Yet his voting pattern, as described by James Fallows, reveals a “cautious realist with a centrist record.”

Kerry, having voted to approve the use of force in Iraq with, among others, Senator Hillary Clinton, declared his intent to ensure all foreign policy tools remained on the table.

Both men later voted against the surge in Iraq in the face of substantial push-back from their colleagues.

More recently in Afghanistan, Kerry was critical of the diplomacy in a very difficult environment. In the words of another very courageous diplomat, the late Richard Holbrooke, “Kerry’s role in Afghanistan was extraordinary.”

Both Hagel and Kerry clearly understand that the oath of office is to support and defend the Constitution – not their political party.

Regrettably, the hint of Hagel’s pending nomination has triggered the release of the attack Chihuahuas. Representative-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas has led the charge, his criticism echoed by party luminaries such as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). Cotton’s screed reveals the current thinking of the GOP’s dogmatic right-wing, which desperately needs the counterweight of “cautious realists.” Men who have experienced close combat tend to be practical.

Hagel is now being criticized for his desire to see engagement with Iran and his intent to nudge Israel to a peaceful outcome in the endless Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “Until we are able to lead a renewal of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process,” Hagel said in 2006, “mindless destruction and slaughter will continue in Lebanon, Israel and across the Middle East.”

With Obama’s intent to accelerate his policy of engagement, supported by both Kerry and Hagel, it brings to mind the famous Abraham Lincoln quote, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”

J Street supports a Hagel nomination – as do five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from both Democratic and Republican administrations. So should anyone who supports a peaceful and successful outcome with our ally Israel.

We have a history of presidents crossing party lines in building Cabinets to achieve crucial goals. President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed a strong Republican and manager to pave the way into World War II and rapidly expand our armed forces. Enter Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, decorated combat soldier and a great selection for a bipartisan team.

For different reasons today, we would benefit from a moderate and a distinguished leader who needs no apprenticeship, who just happens to be a war hero and has a proven record of working across the aisle to get things done. Enter Hagel – as comfortable with generals as with the enlisted infantry he led in Vietnam.

Obama is building a new team for his second-term objectives. The way it is shaping up – with Kerry’s nomination, followed soon by that of Hagel – America will use the increase in engagement with allies and adversaries to allow a vital rebalancing of our instruments of national power.

We are overdue in executing a reinvigoration of our State Department and a period of respite for our men and women in the Defense Department. Kerry will be brilliant at State. Hagel will be equally so at Defense.

PHOTO: Senator John Kerry (L) speaking at a news conference in Cairo May 2, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany. Former Senator Chuck Hagel (R) at a news conference in Omaha, Nebraska, March 12, 2007. REUTERS/Dave Kaup

PHOTO (Insert): Henry L. Stimson  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/Harris & Ewing

3 comments

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“Attack Chihuahuas.” Nice touch.

Posted by USHistoryMan | Report as abusive

Powell was a very experienced combat vet, and managed to mitigate nothing. Both men need to operate independently, because O is not going to be able to provide much leadership.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Those who have actually served in war know what it is like, and if they left the service, then they did not spend a career simply following orders. So they understand the real consequences of going to war. Career officers start out knowing the actual consequences, but soon get so involved in getting ahead, and following orders that they forget where they came from.

The critics of Hagel are likely to be those who know nothing of actual war, but are in love with the idea of going to war, to flex muscle.

Love the phrase attack Chihuahuas; much better then chicken hawks.

Although I have a little concern about Kerry at State, unless the policy will be to bore our enemies to sleep.

Hagel expresses the real key to Middle East peace. Those who wish to profit by selling weapons will shudder at the idea of actual peace.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive