North Korea, Iran and Obama’s Big Bluff

North Korea’s nuclear test this week, coming on the heels of last December’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile along with reports (here and here) that Pyongyang is developing a mobile missile launcher, underscores a point I’ve argued in earlier posts (here and here): It is exceedingly difficult for Washington to stop a rogue regime determined to develop nuclear weapon capabilities, especially if it located in a strategic part of the world, has powerful patrons, and is able to inflict retribution on important U.S. interests in the region.  This lesson is all the more poignant given the Obama administration’s contention that its policy of strategic patience actually represents a harder line vis-à-vis North Korea than what the George W. Bush administration pursued.  It also is one that gives Iranian leaders all the more reason to discount Mr. Obama’s tough talk regarding their own nuclear ambitions.* Continue reading

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Hagel, Kerry and the Ghost in Their Heads

President Obama at the Vietnam memorial in May 2012, marking the 50th anniversary of the conflict's start.

President Obama at the Vietnam memorial in May 2012, marking the 50th anniversary of the conflict’s start.

President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as his Defense Secretary has sparked a raging debate over whether the views held by the former Senator from Nebraska are sufficiently in the U.S. foreign policy mainstream.  Lost in the tumult, however, is how his appointment (along with John F. Kerry’s as Secretary of State) is in an important way out of step with Mr. Obama’s own worldview.

True, the selections mean that Obama is bringing into his Cabinet the trio of Senatorial confidants who tutored him on national security issues in the run-up to his first presidential campaign.  By reuniting Hagel and Kerry with Vice President Joe Biden, the president has formed what Michael Hirsh at the National Journal calls the “team of mentors.”  This is in contrast to the much-hyped “team of rivals” in Obama’s first term, created when Hillary Rodham Clinton, a fierce political opponent, was tapped for the State Department.

Despite his Republican Party affiliation, Hagel was much closer to Obama during their time together in the Senate than Clinton ever was.  At Obama’s invitation, he joined the high-profile July 2008 tour of Afghanistan and the Middle East that was designed to burnish the national security credentials of the Democratic presidential nominee.  Back then, Hagel was even talked about as a possible running mate for Obama; he was open to the idea though he advised Obama to pick Biden.*  His close bonds with Obama appeared to many as tantamount to endorsing Obama over his own party’s presidential nominee in 2008 and he helped deflect Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy positions.

Hagel is the first Vietnam veteran to be nominated for the Pentagon post and the White House is underscoring his distinguished war record.  But this experience also puts him (and Kerry) at sharp odds with the worldview held by Obama and many in his White House circle, who are not products of the Vietnam era and think of the conflict as ancient history. Continue reading