In the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, then defense secretary Robert Gates was agitated about the number of leaks that emerged from the White House about the details of the operation. As David Sanger relates in Confront and Conceal, the leaks were problematic because “the reaction in Pakistan grew uglier and uglier with every revelation of how long the operation had been planned and how the country’s leadership was deliberately left in the dark.” So Gates approached White House national-security adviser Tom Donilon and told him, “I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend.” Donilon asked what it was. Gates then memorably replied, “Shut the f*ck up.”
As the ongoing saga over who President Obama will nominate to serve as his next secretary of defense continues, Gates’s advice is particularly relevant. Last week, Bloomberg reported that former senator Chuck Hagel had emerged as the “leading candidate” for the position, according to “two people familiar with the matter.” This set off a furious campaign against Hagel led by neoconservatives and the “pro-Israel” Right. He was called an “anti-Semite,” accused of being “out on the fringes,” described as an “isolationist” and much more.
Others have convincingly countered the substance of these baseless attacks. See, in particular, Robert Merry here at TNI and Robert Wright at the Atlantic, who also has a useful roundup of Hagel’s other defenders. But it’s also worth noting that this leaking practice has created a number of significant problems for the White House. As with Susan Rice a month ago, Obama has given the impression that Hagel is clearly his preferred pick for the position. Now, if he backs down, he will once again be seen as having abandoned a potential nominee under political pressure. It doesn’t matter that there are perfectly good reasons to prefer other candidates—for example, John Hamre or Michele Flournoy. As Peter Beinart writes at the Daily Beast, “Throw one high-profile foreign policy nominee to the wolves and you look ruthlessly pragmatic. Throw two in the space of a few weeks and you look like an administration that can be rolled.”
More importantly, floating Hagel’s name and then backing down on it will only serve to further circumscribe the range of “acceptable” dialogue in Washington on a number of critical foreign-policy issues. The best case for Hagel’s nomination is precisely that he holds some of the opinions that he is being assailed for by people like William Kristol. Namely, he questions the utility of a military strike on Iran. He doesn’t believe that “supporting” Israel requires following every position of the current Israeli government, even when they conflict with America’s own national interests. And he thinks the defense budget can be reduced responsibly. Americans should welcome the idea of these views being represented by their secretary of defense. But if Hagel is not nominated now, it will create the perception and the precedent that these views are unacceptable for any future cabinet-level position relating to national security.
Once again, Beinart sums it up well:
By leaking Hagel’s name but not defending him, the White House has, in other words, encouraged major “pro-Israel” groups to pick a fight they might otherwise have ducked. And if Obama backs down, it will leave the perception that those groups have more power over top foreign policy appointments than they actually do. That perception will create a new reality since any future administration considering a high-level foreign policy appointee who strays from the AIPAC line will remember the Hagel fiasco. And even more importantly, anyone who fancies themselves a future high-level foreign policy appointee will take even greater care to avoid independent thinking about the Middle East.
In short, if Obama does not intend to nominate Hagel, these leaks will have done some level of serious harm. Conversely, if he does intend to nominate Hagel, he should do it now so that the former senator can begin to defend himself and the administration can begin to make the case for him. In either case, the leaks have not served him well.