In Chuck Hagel, President Obama is appointing a vociferous and public opponent of any military strike to stop the Iranian nuclear program–whether by the U.S. or Israel. For instance in 2006 he said, “I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. I believe a political settlement will be the answer. Not a military settlement.” Just last year he said: “There will be a lot of killing. These things start and you can’t control. They escalate. They always do and they always will.”
Contrary to what he said, a strike on Iran is indeed a “feasible” option (it could be carried out successfully either by the U.S. Air Force and Navy or by the Israeli Air Force), but in one sense he is right–both the U.S. and Israel need to think carefully about all the ramifications of a military strike on Iran are and act only if there is no chance of stopping the Iranian nuclear program by peaceful means. But here’s the problem: The only way to stop the Iranian program by peaceful means is to act as if you’re ready to go to war. Only then is there any chance of the mullahs giving up their nuclear-bomb project. This is in many ways similar to the paradoxical logic of deterrence during the Cold War–only by showing an absolute willingness and ability to wage nuclear wage could the U.S. prevent a nuclear war from breaking out.
But if Hagel is confirmed as secretary of defense, this will be a signal to the entire region that the U.S. is not serious about doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian nuke, thereby making war more likely by forcing Israel into a unilateral strike.
That signal is already being sent. Witness, for example, this Al Arabiya article: “Hagel to rein in Israel on Iran strike: commentators.” That very perception will not only embolden the mullahs to avoid serious negotiations; it could also force Israel to act on its own.
Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are known to view Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state and they have made clear many times their willingness to attack the Iranian program to prevent its completion. This is not a bluff on their part. They have not acted, however, in part because they could not convince the rest of the security cabinet and Israel’s security chiefs–the heads of the armed forces and the intelligence agencies–that there was no option but to launch a unilateral strike. Skeptics of an attack on Iran within the Israeli security establishment have argued that Israel should exhaust every remedy and act only in concert with the U.S. They have buttressed their position by pointing to all of the tough sanctions the U.S. and its allies were imposing on Iran and by citing the tough statements President Obama has made. For instance, in the third presidential debate last fall, Obama said: “As long as I’m president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”
But, whatever Obama’s publicly stated views, Hagel has made clear that he views bombing Iran as a bigger threat than Iran getting the bomb. If he takes office, that will send a very dangerous signal that the U.S. is not serious about doing whatever it takes to stop the Iranian nuclear program. At that point the balance of opinion within the Israeli security establishment could very well shift in favor of a unilateral strike. And if a strike were to occur, Iran could very well retaliate not only against Israel but also against U.S. forces in the region and our Arab allies. In other words, if the Senate confirms Hagel, absent a convincing transformation in his views, it would be making more likely precisely the war that he (and everyone else) would like to avoid.