January 8, 2013

President Obama's new leadership picks and the Middle East

President Barack Obama has made three controversial selections to be part of his leadership team as we begin the last four years of the Obama presidency. These are arguably three of the most important positions in the government and will play a key role in our policies and operations in the Middle East.

The selections are former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. I will start with Kerry's nomination, then Hagel's and wrap up with Brennan's, in order of severity of the choice.

John Kerry - Secretary of State
Nominally, the Secretary of State is the senior cabinet official and is considered a key player in the formulation of foreign policy. In this Administration, as we have seen with current Secretary Hillary Clinton, the policy is made at the White House and simply executed by the State Department. That must be the explanation for the abysmal state of relations with virtually every nation in the Middle East, be they Arab, Israeli, Iranian and possibly even Turkish.

From the moment the Obama Administration took office in January 2009, our policies in the Middle East have done nothing but make a bad situation worse. It began with the disastrous "reset" button embarrassing misstep with the Russian Foreign Minister and went downhill from there.

Although there are many in the media who believe John Kerry has vast foreign policy experience, he is generally regarded as a lightweight by both American and foreign policy analysts. That said, it really will make no difference. President Obama will continue his flawed policies in the region; John Kerry will merely be the well-dressed and polished mouthpiece.

For my assessment of President Obama's Middle East policies during his first four years, see my earlier article, Obama and the Middle East - the first four years.

Chuck Hagel - Secretary of Defense
The nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the Secretary of Defense is more problematic; the Defense Secretary is in the chain of command for the execution of military operations. Many people are not aware of the chain of command - it runs from the President as Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense, to the combatant commander, which in the case of the Middle East, is commander of the U.S. Central Command, currently U.S. Marine Corps General General James Mattis. Note the absence of the Vice President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the chain of command.

Many are touting Hagel's selection as a reach across the aisle, choosing a Republican to serve a Democratic president. Given Hagel's voting record, his consistent endorsement of Democratic candidates, a weak record of support for Israel and lack of resolve on Iran, he is hardly an across-the-aisle pick. Hagel's support of downsizing what he calls a "bloated" Department of Defense is troubling as threats in the region are increasing, not decreasing. Hagel may be a smart guy, but he is a neophyte - just like his future boss - in the Middle East.

That said, orders for military operations originate at the White House, for better or worse. It is no secret that I think this Administration is clueless on effective military operations. Again, see the article I mentioned above.

I assume that the Senate will not violate the professional courtesy afforded to fellow Senators and that both Hagel and Kerry will be confirmed. Again, they will only carry out the ill-advised policies of the President.

John Brennan - Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Here is where I have a real problem with these selections. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, while nominally subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence, is the President's spymaster and covert operations chief. The Director can cause real damage and should possess mature judgement. Thus far, I have not seen that from John Brennan - in fact, I think the opposite is true.

Supporters will claim that Brennan's years as an analyst and one tour as a chief of station in a declared position - meaning he was known to the host country as a CIA officer - qualify him for the position. Normally, that would be a positive, but Brennan's public faux pas make me think twice.

There has been a lot of media research into some of Brennan's nonsensical positions. I myself wrote an article in May 2010, Brennan wants to "build up moderate elements" of Hizballah? Some excerpted points I made then:

John Brennan proposes that the United States "build up moderate elements" within Hizballah. Yes, Hizballah, the same Iranian-created and backed Lebanese jihadist militia designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, the same Hizballah responsible for the murders of 241 U.S. Marines in Beriut in 1983. The list of Hizballah attacks is long and lethal. Yet, Brennan hopes to "diminish the influence of hard-liners" in the organization. John - they're all hardliners - that's why they are members of Hizballah.

Why does this guy still have a job? This proposal comes on the heels of Brennan's ridiculous media appearance in which he described our counterterrorism efforts as "we're not lucky, we're good" in the aftermath of the failure of a bomb to detonate in New York City's Times Square. A terrorist who was trained in Pakistan constructed a car bomb here, drove it to Times Square and tried to detonate it - the only reason there are not hundreds of dead and maimed Americans is that the bomb failed to properly explode - it has nothing to do with our obviously flawed homeland security system. More on that at Holder and Brennan - the "no-clue two".

Brennan's other misfires are quite well known in intelligence circles. Here are some examples:

- April, 2008: Brennan tells the New York Times that a government official must stop "Iran-bashing." If confirmed as the CIA Director, Iran will be one of the top targets for both espionage and covert action. The Iranians are bent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and are the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. Don't want to speak ill of the one of the most dangerous regime's on the planet, John?

- February, 2010: Brennan defends the Obama Administration's decision to treat the so-called "underwear bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalab as a criminal rather than a terrorist. This guy should be in an orange jumpsuit at Guantanamo, not lawyered up in a federal jail. He went so far as to accuse critics of the decision as "serving the goals of al-Qa'idah." John, that's almost as preposterous as it is insulting.

- September, 2010: a known Hamas operative was given an escorted tour of the National Counterterrorism Center. This could not have happened without Brennan's approval. I am sure all of you know that Hamas is a terrorist organization, but the proposed Director of the CIA does not care?

- May, 2012: After the U.S. and allied intelligence services penetrate an al-Qa'idah cell and disrupt an attack on the United States, Brennan is responsible for a leak about the operation that basically sells out an intelligence asset and ends our access to critical intelligence, all for some good publicity for the Obama White House. This sets a bad precedent for protecting our intelligence sources in any case, but from the future director of the CIA?

There's more. He supports trying Guantanamo detainees in federal court, and had a role in the release of Pan Am 103 killer 'Abd al-Basit al-Maghrahi, to name a few.

We've had some lousy CIA directors in the past, but confirming John Brennan to the post would cross new thresholds of irresponsibility.

My bottom line: I am not happy about any of these nominations. I can live with Kerry and Hagel because they are merely executing (bad) policies from the White House. I fear for our intelligence community if John Brennan is allowed to do even more damage that he already has.