The Resignation of Chuck Hagel and US Foreign Policy in Mideast

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Masoud Rezaei
PhD of International Relations, Visiting Research Fellow at
the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

To understand the U.S. Secretary of Defense resignation, it is enough to look at history or read the memoirs of Bob Gates and Leon Panetta as Ex-Secretaries of Defense. It is a deep-seated tradition in U.S. politics: Whenever the president turns unpopular, he fires someone and clean cabinet.

In this respect, Hagel's departure follows significant losses in the just finished midterm congressional elections that resulted in Democrats losing their Senate majority to Republicans and amidst widespread concerns that the United States lacks a clear strategy to combat newly rising threats of terrorism in the Middle East. On the other hand, many in Washington believe that some major mistakes took hold in the Middle East while he was in office, such as failing to foresee the emergence of the ISIS, failing to stop a military coup in Egypt and especially failing to provide a nuclear deal with Iran as expected. It was no secret that Hagel was encouraging the U.S. administration to start high-level talks with Iran. It is, therefore, safe to say that it was most likely Hagel who convinced Obama to have more cooperative relations with Iran.

But some politicians and experts in United States believe that, the reason he was jettisoned is precisely because he had so little influence on real decision-making, which is tightly controlled by a small coterie of White House aides such as national security advisor Susan Rice. Indeed, Hagel’s problems with the ambiguity of White House policy accurately reflected the views of most senior military officers. He believed—and in this he was far from alone within and outside the administration—that national security adviser Susan Rice is in over her head.

However, only such dramatic steps cannot fix the malaise that has overtaken American foreign policy. Hagel’s dismissal, based on deep-seated tradition in American politics if justified, is of little consequence compared with the policy overhaul that Obama needs to change. For this reason, U.S. President Barack Obama has come under intense criticism for his foreign policy in the Middle East, along with many other things. So the problem is not that Hagel shouldn't have been fired — he was pretty much a nonentity as defense secretary. The problem is that firing him is not going to change much, if anything. Indeed, after U.S. interventionism in Iraq in 2003, the Middle East is going from bad to worse these days. It's not hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end."

This means that, the Middle East today is riven by a series of overlapping conflicts along multiple fault lines, driven in good part by protracted government failures and exacerbated by misguided outside meddling. The view doesn't get much better no matter where one looks. If the history of the past twenty years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse. After all, when things are this bad, the need to rethink the entire U.S. approach to the region is hard to escape.

Effective foreign policymaking requires an understanding of not only international and transnational systems, but also the intricacies of domestic politics in multiple countries. It also demands recognition of just how little is known about “building nations,” particularly after revolutions (Arab Spring or Islamic awakening) – a process that should be viewed in terms of decades, not years. In such a complex and uncertain context, prudence is critical, and bold action based on a grandiose vision can be extremely dangerous. This is what advocates of a more muscular approach to today’s revolutions in the Middle East often forget. On the other hand, it is obvious that no president in United States is willing to challenge Israel's backers and make U.S. support for Israel conditional on an end to the Palestine occupation. Until that happens, all efforts to broker a peace will keep failing.

The 2003 Iraq War exacerbated Sunni-Shia tensions and after decade, what emerged in the region was a vacuum filled by the ISIS. The ISIS wouldn't exist if United States had not invaded in Iraq, and Iran would have less reason for hostility toward Washington if it hadn't watched the United States throw its weight around in the region and threaten it directly with regime change. Nowadays, main reasons for growing regional disorder have to do with the United States.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign policy sometimes are marked by new departures and new roads taken. But they might instead entail blown opportunities to take new and better roads, with significant damage resulting from the failure to take them. One hopes that the relentless uninformed criticism that his pragmatic policies have elicited does not drive his successor to revert to a risky transformational approach.

Key Words:  Resignation, Chuck Hagel, US Foreign Policy, Mideast, Congressional Elections, Terrorism, Obama, Susan Rice, Interventionism, Arab Spring, Sunni-Shia Tensions, Rezaei

More By Masoud Rezaei:

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*Erdogan and an Independent Kurdistan: Strategic Interest or Political Suicide?:

*Will Referring the Case of Syria to the ICC Be of any Help in Resolving the Crisis?:

*Photo Credit: Reuters

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