After avoiding a nomination fight over U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama has decided to keep his gloves on and elbows up by nominating former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.
Controversy surrounds the pick. To many conservatives, Hagel, who initially supported the Iraq War but later likened it to Vietnam, is too soft on foreign policy and too eager to cut defense spending. Comments Hagel made about the pro-Israel lobby intimidating politicians in Washington have prompted criticism from some Democrats and Republicans. Hagel’s preference for using diplomacy with Iran and his views on force and unilateral sanctions have also drawn scrutiny. On a front unrelated to national security policy, Hagel has outraged some in the LGBT community with comments he made fourteen years ago about an openly gay ambassadorial nominee, for which he only recently apologized.
Amid the uproar Hagel’s nomination has caused, less attention has been given to the totality of his record. Hagel has spent his entire adult life involved with U.S. foreign affairs, from serving in Vietnam to once being a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Hagel’s experience and record suggest that he would not merely execute the president’s policies but would also inform and influence those policies as well.
That record reveals a nominee who prefers regional stability over risky interventionist policies. Hagel has criticized Israel’s policies in the region. He has openly opposed the Iraq war, criticized the surge of troops in 2007, and, although he voted to authorize the war, he has said he would have voted no in hindsight. On Syria, Hagel has opposed direct U.S. intervention, preferring to work with multilateral institutions and saying that the last thing you want is an American-led or Western-led invasion into Syria.
It comes as no surprise then that Hagel would like to see stability in the region stem from U.S. allies rather than a U.S. military presence. For Hagel, it seems, one of those key allies is Turkey. Hagel has been a vocal proponent of enhancing the relationship between the United States and Turkey, viewing that nation as an invaluable partner in a fractured region dominated by religious and political extremism. Hagel has called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkey, one of the “most valuable leaders in the 20th century” who that Ataturk “should be taught at schools.” Hagel has consistently voted against U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide, drawing criticism from Armenian-American groups. In his last two years in the Senate, Hagel had the opportunity to support Senate Resolutions on the three core Hellenic issues – the continued occupation of Cyprus, the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the Macedonian name issue. He failed to support any of the three (despite having signed a letter to President Bush on the religious freedom of the Patriarch in the previous Congress). In fact, the only pro-Hellenic action then Senator Hagel took in the 110th Congress was voting to acknowledge Greek Independence Day.
Hagel’s approach to the relationship between the United States and Turkey should be closely watched by the Greek American community, since many observers believe that relationship is stronger than it has ever been. That strength of that relationship is best evidenced by the fact that over the past year, the U.S. Department of Defense has transferred attack helicopters to Ankara and attempted to also grant it naval warships. A deal it to sell Sidewinder missiles to Turkey is awaiting congressional approval Meanwhile, the U.S. has sent Patriot missiles and support troops under the auspices of helping Turkey to protect its southern border from turbulence in neighboring Syria. Hagel’s praise of Turkey in the past suggest that the Turkish military may stand to be one of the great beneficiaries of the President’s latest nomination.
This comes at a time when ’ presence of the United States in the Middle East and the Mediterranean is diminishing. Though much has been said about Hagel’s opposition for direct intervention, less speculation has surfaced as to how he would use military aid to influence the behavior of other countries – especially that of America’s allies.
If Turkey continues to receive generous military aid without conditions, it will exacerbate the wariness of Turkey’s neighbors. Greece and Cyprus, already face Turkish threats against their respective Exclusive Economic Zones, and Prime Minister has openly threatened to employ Turkey’s navy against Israel. Unconditional military support of Ankara will also do nothing to promote Turkey’s reconciliation with Armenia, which Turkey abandoned despite efforts by the Obama Administration to normalize relations and open borders between the two countries.
The answers to these four questions would give us insight what a Hagel-led Department of Defense would mean for the Eastern Mediterranean:
After the Syrian threat subsides, as it eventually will, how would you ensure that Turkey will not exacerbate tensions on its border with Armenia by placing any newly acquired missiles there?
Before transferring any further naval warships to Turkey, would you restrict them from being placed in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Cyprus, Greece, or Israel?
How do you reconcile sending hundreds of American troops to “defend” Turkey when there are 40,000 Turkish occupation troops on Cyprus that could defend their own country’s border?
When the Syrian threat subsides, would you recommend to the President that further military aid to Turkey should be conditioned on diplomatic progress with Armenia, Cyprus, Greece and Israel?
Peter Kourkouvis is a Chicago based political blogger.