The all-powerful American quartet

Hisham Melhem

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A milestone will be crossed for the first time in U.S. history if, as expected, the Senate approves the nomination of Democrat senator John Kerry and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as secretaries of State and Defense. This will mean the four most powerful leaders of the country will be former Senators. The four, despite their different backgrounds and biographies, did develop collegial relations, collaborated with one another, and the three elder ones Joe Biden, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel mentored their younger freshman colleague Barack Obama particularly on foreign policy issues including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other thorny challenges of the Middle East.

It was presidential candidate John Kerry in August 2004 who first gave the unknown Illinois State Senator with an unfamiliar name, Barack Obama, his first national stage when he asked him to address the Democratic National Convention that nominated Kerry in Boston. In July 2008, presidential candidate Obama visited the Middle East accompanied by Senator Hagel, who later supported his presidential race against his old friend Senator John McCain. Even when Obama and Biden competed as candidates for the nomination of their party for president in 2008 they maintained their collegiality. And it was Senator Hagel who advised Obama after he won the nomination to pick Biden as his vice president.

Both Kerry and Hagel are decorated war heroes who fought valiantly in Vietnam and they have the scars to prove it. By their admission, they were haunted by their experience as young men in Vietnam, which shaped their views of wars and conflict resolutions

Hisham Melhem
Most importantly, the four share a similar vision of America’s role in a very complex, swiftly changing world where Washington is no longer able, as it used to in the past to play the role of the hegemon. Both Kerry and Hagel are decorated war heroes who fought valiantly in Vietnam and they have the scars to prove it. By their admission, they were haunted by their experience as young men in Vietnam, which shaped their views of wars and conflict resolutions. That traumatic experience explains their reluctance to use military force, and their belief in soft power, diplomacy and engagement and the need to work through international organizations, and strengthening current alliances and cast a wider net for friends.

The four believe that the harsh deserts of Iraq and the inhospitable mountains of Afghanistan have shown in bold tragic relief in the last decade the limits of America’s military power. The U.S. did not win either war. Obama won the nomination in 2008 in part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. And while it was true that Biden, Kerry and Hagel approved with reservations a congressional decision to give former president George W. Bush in 2003 the authority to invade Iraq, the three soon after turned into harsh critics of the mismanagement and the blunders of the occupation and began to call for disengagement. Hagel alienated his Republican colleagues in the Senate and earned the enmity of the White House, particularly that of vice president Dick Cheney when he vociferously criticized president Bush’s ‘surge’ of forces in Iraq, a decision that was championed by Senator McCain but denounced by Hagel in a debate in January 2007 as "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

‘In drones we trust’

Hagel in fact did not support Obama’s ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, agreeing essentially with Biden who counseled in the internal deliberations against further military escalation. Hagel’s belief in the judicious use of military force is shared by those Republican luminaries who are supporting him; Bob Gates, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft among others.

The four are eager to end America’s longest war in Afghanistan, and they seem to subscribe, particularly Hagel, to former secretary of defense Bob Gates’ dictum that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Their aversion to open ended military entanglements with their attendant casualties mean that Obama’s second term will rely even more than the first on the use of drones from the Af/Pack theatre, to Yemen, Somalia and beyond, on the air force as was the case during the Libyan conflict, and on Special Forces, and cyber war. With the appointment of John Brennan, the chief believer in the concept of “in drones we trust” as CIA director, America will speak softly, and carry a medium size stick to make sure that its military options leave only “light footprint” behind them. Hagel and Kerry will reinforce Obama’s inclination to reduce America’s military commitments abroad, including the volatile Middle East region. This approach will get more support in the future given the radical changes in the energy landscape at home with increased domestic production of oil and natural gas that will gradually reduce America’s reliance on energy import from overseas including the Gulf region. In 2005 the U.S. imported 60 % of its oil consumption; in 2011 the figure was 44%. Already, some are wondering why the U.S. should have a high military profile in the Gulf/Indian Ocean region, when most of the oil produced there is being sold to China and India.

Support for Syria?

The persistent resistance of the Obama administration to any military involvement in the war in Syria will gain more support from Hagel and Kerry who have been on record as advocates of engaging Syria and Iran, a policy initially pursued by Obama but foundered because of president Assad’s bloody response to the initially peaceful popular uprising, and Iran’s determination to continue its clandestine nuclear program. In October 2003 Hagel told Al Arabiya that stabilizing Iraq requires engaging Iran and Syria, and he voiced skepticism that unilateral sanctions such as the Syria Accountability Act will ever succeed. Hagel also was blunt in his criticism of Israel’s separation wall built on occupied Palestinian territory and settlement building activities as obstacles to peace. For a while Kerry used his contacts and relations with Bashar Assad (including dining out in Damascus with their wives) and regular telephone calls as a job application for secretary of state. Kerry, who served as an informal Obama envoy to Assad, was so convinced of his ability to bring Assad from the cold and present him to the world as a moderate modernizer and a potential peacemaker that he refused to allow Assad’s lies regarding training Hezbollah elements on the use of Scud missiles to derail his mission, according to sources familiar with these internal debates.

Iran, Israel

On Iran, President Obama and his new advisors are likely to give themselves another grace period to revisit diplomatic efforts with Islamic Republic, now that Iranian officials are admitting publicly that the bite of the international sanctions is seriously hurting the economy. This will be done in conjunction with finding more ways to tighten the economic noose and the use of cyber war and other unconventional ways to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. This approach will not sit well with Israel or with the Arab Gulf states.

Unlike the beginning of his first term in office, where president Obama was eager to revive the ‘peace process’ between Arabs and Israelis, and transcend the painful legacies of the Iraq war and the ‘war on terrorism’ by pursuing a ‘new beginning’ with the Muslim world, there are no indications that this will be among the top priorities of Obama’s second term. Some even expect a return to a quite ‘benign neglect’ phase. But as recent history shows, it is a matter of time before the tensions in the Levant drag the U.S. once again and force it to play the role of the indispensable peacemaker. In this eventuality, it is useful to remember that members of America’s top quartet have shown in the past their frustration with Israeli policies, and voiced publicly and privately strong criticism against Israeli settlement activities in the Palestinian occupied territories. During the first confrontation between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, Kerry is said to have told secretary of state Hillary Clinton ‘we should put on our flak jackets and prepare ourselves…” Next time when the Arab-Israeli conflict imposes itself on the U.S. the Israeli government is likely to find itself facing a harder line from the American quartet.

(Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem)

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