Two interesting — but little-noted — developments on the Hagel front over the last couple of days.
First, Paul Wolfowitz endorsed former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy to replace Leon Panetta based on her understanding of and advocacy for the importance of training Afghan forces to prepare them to fight on their own against the Taliban. Whether this constitutes a kiss of death for Flournoy’s candidacy, I have no idea. But I imagine that, given his record on both Iraq and Afghanistan, Wolfowitz’s endorsement is one of the last she would want to have at this moment. (Remember: it was Wolfowitz who denounced Gen. Eric Shinseki’s estimate that it would take hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to pacify the country as “wildly off the mark.”) Worse for Flournoy, Wolfowitz concludes that it is a “vital” U.S. interest to prevent the Taliban from returning to power, suggesting that Flournoy at the Pentagon would somehow ensure that this would not happen (despite the fact that the Obama administration has repeatedly indicated it could accept the return of the Taliban in some kind of power-sharing agreement based on certain conditions, notably its definitive break with Al Qaeda). According to Wolfowitz:
[I]t’s also vital for the US to prevent the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan, so we have a huge stake in the Afghan Security Forces.
Flournoy not only grasped the centrality of that strategic point, but she pursued it skillfully and without seeking credit for what she did. As far as I know, none of this has been reported before. But it deserves to be.
It leads me to think that Flournoy might be the best possible candidate for the top Pentagon job during the coming difficult years in Afghanistan. She does not seem to be someone who would comfortably let that war be lost.”
Now, to conclude that Flournoy would or could prevent that outcome, one would have to assume that U.S. troops would remain heavily engaged there after the 2014 withdrawal date, more engaged than I would imagine Obama would prefer. Plus, as in Iraq, if the Kabul government does not agree to a provide legal immunity to U.S. soldiers there as part of a future Status of Forces Agreement, what, if anything, can Flournoy do about that?
The second development was the announcement, in an “exclusive” to the Washington Post’s resident hard-line neo-con blogger, Jennifer Rubin, that the Senate Minority Whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, opposed Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense Secretary. There’s a lot of nonsense in Cornyn’s statement, but my eyes — after Ali pointed it out to me — focused on the part that had played a sort of catalytic role. According to Rubin, Cornyn asserted that Hagel “said he wouldn’t support all options being on the table” during a 2010 Atlantic Council briefing by the Council’s Iran task force. Rubin helpfully linked to the transcript of that briefing.
In fact, however, Hagel did not say he wouldn’t support “all options being on the table” in response to my question about whether it was helpful — to promoting human rights in Iran or improving prospects for a negotiated agreement on its nuclear program — for U.S. officials to constantly remind the Iranians that “all options are on the table.” This was his reply:
I’m not so sure it is necessary to continue to say all options are on the table. I believe that the leadership in Iran, regardless of the five power centers that you’re referring to – whether it’s the ayatollah or the president or the Republican Guard, the commissions – have some pretty clear understanding of the reality of this issue and where we are.
I think the point that your question really brings out – which is a very good one. If you were going to threaten on any kind of consistent basis, whether it’s from leadership or the Congress or the administration or anyone who generally speaks for this country in anyway, than [sic] you better be prepared to follow through with that.
Now, Stuart [Eizenstat, Hagel’s co-chair on the task force] noted putting 100,000 troops in Iran – I mean, just as a number as far as if to play this thing out. The fact is, I would guess that we would all – I would be the one to start the questioning – would ask where you’re going to get 100,000 troops. (Laughter.) So your point is a very good one, I think.
I don’t think there’s anybody in Iran that does not question the seriousness of America, our allies or Israel on this for all the reasons we made very clear. And I do think there does become a time when you start to minimize the legitimacy of a threat. When you threaten people or you threaten sovereign nations, you better be very careful and you better understand, again, consequences because you may be required to employ that threat and activate that threat in some way.
So I don’t mind people always, as we have laid out, and I think every president and every administration, anybody of any consequence who’s talked about this can say – does say. But I think it’s implied that the military threat is always there. [Emphasis added.]
So Hagel never said that he doesn’t believe “all options are on the table.” He said that you have to be careful about not repeatedly making such a threat, because the Iranian leadership understands it already, and the more you repeat it, the less credibility it has. This is Hagel’s version of TR’s “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
What we have here is yet another example of the neo-con propaganda machine/echo chamber. Someone gives a credulous or complicit staffer in Cornyn’s office a list of talking points, at least one of which is demonstrably false; the staffer tells Rubin or someone else close to her that Cornyn is willing to publicly attack Hagel based on these talking points; Rubin calls Cornyn and gets him to spout them (including at least one that is demonstrably false) on the record. (Several others are taken completely out of context). Then she claims that the Minority Whip is now firmly opposed to Hagel’s nomination (based on information that is demonstrably false), quoting him extensively, and thus providing additional evidence and momentum for her previous suggestion (made the day before) that Hagel is “toast.” And then she has the audacity/chutzpah/carelessness to link to a briefing that she wants her readers to believe proves Cornyn’s claim but that in fact shows that his claim is false. Is this deliberate or negligent on her part? Did she read the transcript before she linked to it? Or did she simply link to it because someone had given her the same or a similar version of the talking points, and she failed to investigate their reliability? I don’t think any of that is important to her; her main goal is to prevent Hagel’s nomination. (For more on Rubin’s work at the Post, read Eric Alterman’s Nation article from last summer, entitled appropriately “Attack Dog Jennifer Rubin Muddies the Washington Post’s Reputation.”)
Then Cornyn’s remarks are immediately reprinted on the Weekly Standard website and linked to by the National Review’s “Corner” blog. I’m sure Commentary’s Contentions blog will pick them up soon, and maybe we’ll see them on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page next week. (Today’s lead editorial deals with John Kerry’s appointment, but the thrust is all about the dangers posed by Hagel, whose views are predictably described as “neo-isolationism.”)