President Obama is assembling a national security team designed for an era of downsized but enduring conflict, a team that will be asked to preside over the return of exhausted American troops and wield power through the targeted use of sanctions, Special Operations forces and drone strikes.
Obama’s nominations of former senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan as CIA director signal second-term course adjustments at institutions that have been dominated by their lethal assignments during more than a decade of war.
Those adjustments could include returning the CIA’s focus to its core mission of gathering intelligence, even though it is expected to maintain its fleet of armed drones for years. The Pentagon faces an even more aggressive restructuring to balance budget cuts against threats, including China’s ascendent military and emerging al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and the Middle East.
The nominations also set the stage for confirmation fights driven not only by criticism of Hagel and Brennan but also by the foreign policy approach they represent.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, shares Obama’s aversion to military intervention. White House officials described him as ideally suited to managing the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the shrinking Pentagon budget. But he has attracted fierce criticism from groups that question the strength of his support for Israel.
Brennan is a 25-year CIA veteran who has voiced concern over the agency’s paramilitary mission and has imposed tighter controls on targeted killing, even while his White House tenure has been marked by a massive increase in the agency’s drone campaign.
Four years ago, Brennan withdrew from consideration to lead the CIA amid questions about his role as a high-ranking CIA official at a time when the agency employed brutal interrogation techniques — a link certain to resurface when he faces a Senate vote.
Both men are known for their strong personalities and strongly held views. Still, associates described them as comfortable fits for an administration that favors covert action — including Predator drone strikes on al-Qaeda targets and cyber-sabotage of Iran’s nuclear plants — over conventional force.
In announcing the nominees, Obama said that their agenda would include “ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle, [and] preparing for the full range of threats.” He also emphasized their experiences in the lower ranks of the institutions they would run, saying both served overseas and understand firsthand “the consequences of decisions that we make in this town.”
Obama avoided one confirmation fight when U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice withdrew from consideration to be secretary of state amid criticism of her role in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Instead, Obama turned to a compromise pick, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). The former presidential candidate has established relationships with foreign leaders that could help the administration push for tougher sanctions on Iran, expand its pursuit of al-Qaeda beyond Yemen and Pakistan, and deal with the Syrian civil war.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama’s selection of Kerry, Hagel and Brennan reflects a change in foreign policy priorities for the second term.
Rhodes said all three nominees share Obama’s basic view of the world and the United States’ place in it, a view that favors multilateral alliances and a reliance on intelligence and lethal technology, holding war as a last resort. “These are three men well suited to that task,” he said.
Brennan has led a White House effort to develop a “playbook” of counterterrorism policies, aiming to set up institutions that can sustain the fight against al-Qaeda for another decade or more. But Obama is also seeking to turn toward other objectives, including new initiatives in Asia and expanded nuclear-nonproliferation work.
Hagel would add a well-known war skeptic to the administration’s national security team at a time when a potential military confrontation with Iran over its uranium-enrichment efforts looms as one of the gravest security challenges of Obama’s second term.
A former Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel supported the Iraq invasion in 2003. But he later broke with his party leaders over the war’s management and opposed the 2007 troop surge that, combined with other factors, helped bring a measure of stability to Iraq. That break in ranks angered many Senate Republicans who will be weighing his nomination.
Hagel has also faced mounting criticism in recent weeks from groups that have depicted him as a wary supporter of Israel. If that opposition solidifies, Obama could face the kind of confirmation fight that prompted him to back away from the Rice nomination.
“One way to look at this is that the president actually wants someone to buck some of the conventional wisdom on Iran,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. O’Hanlon said he wonders whether Hagel now regrets his criticism of the Iraq surge, something that will probably come up in Senate confirmation hearings.
Hagel would be the first former soldier of enlisted rank, and the first Vietnam veteran, to head the Pentagon. His background would bolster Obama’s growing emphasis on veterans’ issues as more troops come home.
Karl F. Inderfurth, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, said Obama is putting together a second-term Cabinet that would probably “look long and hard, adopt a ‘look before you leap’ approach, before committing U.S. forces and prestige to foreign lands.”
Brennan also faces a potential confirmation fight, and his nomination met immediate opposition from senior lawmakers and civil liberties groups.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he had “many questions and concerns . . . especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration.”
Brennan was chief of staff to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the agency set up a network of secret prisons and began using brutal interrogation techniques, including a method of simulated drowning known as “waterboarding.”
Brennan has described himself as a critic of those methods, but former colleagues said they could not recall him raising objections when he was a senior executive at the CIA.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview Monday that she supports Brennan and thinks he will be confirmed. Asked how much opposition he will face, Feinstein said: “I think there will be some. I don’t see a lot.”
Her committee recently completed a three-year investigation of the CIA’s interrogation program, which was largely dismantled before Obama took office. The records show that Brennan was aware of details of the program, but Feinstein said there is nothing to indicate that he played a significant role.
Even so, the White House recently pored over the 6,000-page document to make sure it contained nothing that would derail a Brennan nomination, officials said.
As a senior adviser to Obama over the past four years, Brennan has played a direct role in another controversial CIA program, the expanding campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Senior administration officials said Brennan has fought to impose tighter limits on the use of targeted killing. Nevertheless, the pace of attacks has soared. Of the approximately 390 airstrikes in Pakistan and Yemen over the past decade, more than 340 came under Obama and Brennan, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks drone strikes.
In some ways, moving to the CIA would require Brennan to relinquish some of the power he has amassed in a White House position that he has helped create and define. Known for seemingly interminable workweeks, Brennan was expected to retire. But associates said he has always wanted to be CIA director, a position that unexpectedly opened after retired Gen. David H. Petraeus resigned over an extramarital affair.
At the CIA, Brennan would be in a position to reshape an agency that he has privately described as too focused on finding targets for robotic aircraft. In his remarks alongside Obama at the announcement of his nomination, however, he made it clear that the drone program won’t be dismantled anytime soon.
“If confirmed as director, I will make it my mission to ensure that the CIA has the tools it needs to keep our nation safe and that its work always reflects the liberties, the freedoms and the values that we hold so dear,” Brennan said.