With Monday’s nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, and last month’s nomination of John Kerry for Secretary of State, President Obama has chosen a foreign policy team headed by Vietnam veterans.
Michael Hirsh, Chief Correspondent for the National Journal talks about how both the war defined the world view of both men, and another shared trait: both men have been trusted foreign policy mentors to the President since Obama was a freshman senator.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Wermen, this is the world. President Obama today nominated former senator Chuck Hagel to be his next defense secretary, and he selected White House counter terrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA.
President Obama:…My number one criteria in making these decisions was simple. Who is going to do the best job in securing America? These two leaders have dedicated their lives to protecting our country. I am confident they will do an outstanding job…
Werman: The president urged congress to confirm his nominees as quickly as possible. With Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary, and his nod to John Kerry for secretary of state, president Obama is building a national security team headed by Vietnam veterans. Michael Hirsh of the National Journal has reported on both men and their relationship with Obama. He says the significance of their nominations goes beyond the fact that they are both combat veterans.
Michael Hirsh: Well, it’s quite remarkable. It’s not just that they were both in Vietnam, it’s that by both their admissions – that is Hagel and Kerry over the years – their experiences were profound in shaping their world views. Kerry, of course, became famous. He really was first rocketed to national celebrity in 1971 when he made an appearance before the same senate foreign relations committee that he now chairs, and said, you know, how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? Which was a much quoted comment. It even inspired a Bruce Springsteen song years later. And according to people close to Kerry, this is going to inform, in a very profound way, his tenure as secretary of state. As one of his aides described to me, Kerry is the kind of guy who is going to get on that plane and go for another round of diplomacy when everyone else says it’s not going to work, simply because he’s had the experience of war that was so bitter and so personal to him. Hagel has talked about his Vietnam experience in a very similar way. He was there during the Tet Offensive, he was an enlisted man, as president Obama said today, who was hit, you know, wounded by shrapnel, involved in life threatening situations, earned two purple hearts, has said to me and other reporters over the years, repeatedly, that he swore to himself when he was on the ground in Vietnam, during combat, that if he ever got the chance, if he was ever in a position of responsibility, that he would not let an unnecessary war happen again. And of course Hagel became, I think, most noted in the early days of the war on terror after 9/11 when he broke with his president, President Bush, and his own party, to initially oppose the Iraq invasion.
Werman: As far as Chuck Hagel, I mean, it sounds like what you’re saying is, having seen the real consequences of foreign policy decisions made when he was in Vietnam, that’s going to affect him as security of defense. Specifically, how do you see that playing out?
Hirsh: I see Hagel advocating, as he has in the past, for a very restrained US response to new crisis situations, whether it’s Libya or the Syrian civil war that’s going on now, and there’s debate inside the Obama administration about how forthrightly the US should get involved, whether we should directly aid Syrian rebels with weapons, Hagel – very plainly, based on his past experiences, voting record, things he’s said as senator, he spent twelve years in the senate – all those things indicate that he is going to be the voice of extreme restraint.
Werman: Now Michael, you have pointed out in National Journal something else that senators Kerry and Hagel have had in common over the years. They have been foreign policy mentors to Barack Obama. Can you talk about this group? I mean, you have referred to them as the ‘team of mentors’.
Hirsh: Yeah, it’s really interesting. In his comments – particularly going all the way back to 2008, Barack Obama has talked about the influence of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, ‘Team of Rivals’, which of course referred to the cabinet that Abraham Lincoln assembled. Obama cited that as a model, and of course he ended up picking his number one rival, Hillary Clinton, as his secretary of state. Now in the second term, though, what we are seeing is more of a ‘team of mentors’ approach, as I call it, because Obama is gathering around him as his closest top aides in his cabinet, senators who really sort of tutored him, brought him along when he was a freshman senator from Illinois. Recall that Obama was actually a senator for a very brief time, and so he sought the advice of Joe Biden, now his vice president, John Kerry, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, and of Chuck Hagel, who was, sort of a Republican centrist and maverick. So you do see a remarkable alignment of views here, and you see this president, after one term, reaching back to this team of mentors who helped him along when he was really very new on the national scene. I think it’s very striking.
Werman: Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal. Thank you.
Hirsh: Thank you.
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