Hagel, Kerry offer softer tone on foreign policy

Hagel, Kerry offer softer tone on foreign policy

New secretary of defense suggests US ‘can’t dictate to the world,’ while secretary of state calls Iran’s government ‘elected’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is accompanied by France's President Francois Hollande after their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Francois Mori)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is accompanied by France's President Francois Hollande after their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Francois Mori)

NEW YORK – The two newest members of Obama’s cabinet expressed views on Wednesday that will likely be grist for the mill for the administration’s foreign policy critics.

Shortly after he was sworn in Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a group of Pentagon officials that the US “can’t dictate to the world, but we must engage the world.”

The remarks, which according to Reuters appeared to be unscripted, went on to emphasize the importance of alliances in American foreign and defense policy.

“We must lead with our allies,” Hagel said. “No nation – as great as America is – can do any of this alone. We have great power and how we apply our power is particularly important. That engagement in the world should be done wisely. And the resources that we employ on behalf of our country and our allies should always be applied wisely.”

Hagel’s views have faced close scrutiny during the weeks-long nomination process that ended with his approval by the Senate on Tuesday by the narrowest margin in history, 58-41. Hagel’s detractors, including most Republican senators, said he was too soft on threats such as the Iranian nuclear program, overly critical of Israel, and too skeptical regarding the efficacy of employing American power. His comments Wednesday will likely be seen by some of these opponents as vindication of their opposition to his appointment.

Hagel’s swearing-in ceremony was conducted behind closed doors. His remarks, delivered after the ceremony, also touched on the massive cuts the Pentagon faces on March 1 due to the looming budget sequester.

Meanwhile, John Kerry was in Paris Wednesday as part of his first European tour as secretary of state. In a press conference with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Kerry seemed to offer a rhetorical olive branch to the Iranian government he had appeared to threaten only days earlier, saying the government was “elected” and calling for direct bilateral discussions between the US and the Islamic Republic.

“Iran is a country with a government that was elected and that sits in the United Nations,” Kerry said, according to Foreign Policy. “And it is important for us to deal with nation-states in a way that acts in the best interests of all of us in the world.”

He added that “Iran knows what it needs to do, the president has made clear his determination to implement his policy that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”

The comments seemed markedly gentler than Kerry’s statements earlier in the week. On Monday, Kerry had warned that “the window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot by definition remain open forever. But it is open today. It is open now. There is still time but there is only time if Iran makes the decision to come to the table and negotiate in good faith.” While the US is “prepared to negotiate in good faith, in mutual respect,” Kerry didn’t flinch from speaking of “terrible consequences [that] could follow failure.

“And so the choice really is in the hands of the Iranians,” he said, “and we hope they will make the right choice.”

Kerry’s latest comment on the Iranian election ran counter to past views expressed by the White House and among many observers in the West that Iran’s 2009 elections saw rampant fraud in favor of the victor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many have also pointed to laws that require candidates for high office to be vetted by the regime’s religious leaders as evidence of the less-than-democratic nature of the regime.

On January 31, in the middle of his confirmation hearings in the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hagel expressed similar sentiments to Kerry’s, arguing Iran was an “elected, legitimate government.”

At the time, following criticism by senators, Hagel retracted the comment and said he’d only meant to suggest Iran’s government is recognized by the international community. “What I meant to say, should have said, it’s recognizable, it’s been recognized, is recognized at the United Nations. Most of our allies have embassies there. That is what I should have said,” Hagel explained.

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