Veteran's Senate push shows Obama's tactics

By Jay Kuten

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There's a big fight shaping up in Washington. It's between the entire military industrial complex and one former enlisted man, a decorated Vietnam War veteran whom Obama has picked as Defence Secretary.

Charles "Chuck" Hagel is a Republican, a millionaire cellphone entrepreneur and a former US Senator from Nebraska. He would be, if confirmed by the Senate, the first ordinary soldier in the Secretary of Defence role and one with battlefield experience. In his senatorial career he also seems to have collected a few enemies.

That's because he's been a real maverick. He opposed his own party's administration on torture and conduct of the Iraq War, earning the enmity of Dick Cheney, among others.

You can judge a man by his enemies, not just his friends.

Ostensibly the folks arrayed against him in a fight for nomination are the Congressional pro-Israeli hardliners. For them, Chuck Hagel's failure to align himself unquestioningly with Israel's right wing, the Benjamin Netanyahu administration, warrants a baseless charge of anti-semitism.

An objection he made in 1994 to the ambassadorial appointment of an openly gay man, for which Hagel has since apologised, is also being dredged up against him.

That these fairly weak objections are nonetheless vehemently promoted requires a look further afield. And it's to the generals whom this grunt soldier would now command.

Whereas active duty personnel are legally constrained from overt politics, no such limits exist on retired generals. General Stanley McChrystal, former Afghanistan Commander, fired by Obama, might have had the grace to fade away like Douglas McArthur before him in 1952. Instead, he's given a new interview in which he represents the opinions of many of his peers and certainly the makers of military hardware.

In the interview, McChrystal posits that a winning possibility exists for the Afghan conflict, a war Obama pledges to end by 2014. McChrystal says we not only have a duty to stand by Karzai and the Afghan people but that unless we continue with our military presence, the stability of Pakistan is endangered.

These views generated a strange sense of deja vu. All of it, buzzwords included, were given as the rationale for that other failed American military adventure, Vietnam. There, too, a corrupt puppet regime with little popular support was deemed "the good guys". Then, too, the danger of withdrawal was the threat of spread of rebellion - communism - to all of Southeast Asia - the domino theory. Then, too, generals failed to give civilian leaders adequate assessment of probable military outcomes.

All that was needed, they said, was greater troop numbers. A man who has only a hammer sees everything as a nail.

The generals and the military hardware companies that benefit from these conflicts would be in a more difficult position for recommending further adventures with a former enlisted man at their helm.

Hagel is in for a tough fight, and it won't end with his confirmation. While there can be legitimate reservations raised about his conservative social policy leanings, he is the best man for this particular job, and I hope this battle-tested dove can overcome all the chicken hawks.

Why is this nomination fight of any concern to New Zealand? For one thing, it's an instructive lesson in the limits of presidential power. The US President nominates his cabinet and Senatorial consent ought reasonably to be a foregone conclusion. Only it's not. Especially if it's a centrist president opposed by right-wing forces.

More parochially, this nomination signals Obama's intentions to constrain American military over-reach. It says that this administration wants no more Iraqs or Afghanistans and, if it has its way, the toys for fighting future wars of choice will be downsized along with numbers of military. Quite possibly, if the US does continue to be the world's policeman, it will be asking Kiwis to come along on the beat. So far, successive governments, Labour and National, have been eager to provide quiet help.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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