NEW YORK — President Barack Obama, after weeks of speculation and scrutiny, formally nominated former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense on Monday afternoon.
Hagel is a long time adviser and confidante of the president, and his nomination sent several messages to those reading the tea leaves about future American defense policy.
Some issues only tangentially concern Israel and the Middle East, some not at all. These include defense cuts, a focus of resources toward the Asia-Pacific region, gay rights issues in the American defense establishment, American policy on Cuba, and the like.
Critics of Hagel were quick to leap on the appointment’s significance for Obama’s second-term policies toward Israel. And the nominee would certainly not have been the Israeli government’s preferred choice.
But with an apparent dialing down of the administration’s willingness to engage in any renewed Israeli-Palestinian initiative, and so much on the agenda elsewhere, it is unclear whether Hagel’s past views on Israel — that America should not make the “false choice” of siding with Israel at the expense of its relations with the Arab world — are relevant to his nomination.
Indeed, it is entirely unclear whether Hagel’s past views are meaningful in the context of the issue Israeli leaders care about most: Iran. Wikileaks and intelligence sources have pointed for years to the tacit Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran, suggesting there would be no such choice to be made between Israeli and Arab interests.
The threats from the region, many of which originate in Iran, are unlikely to subside, and the indispensability of American power to securing Saudi oil and other global interests is unlikely to change during Hagel’s tenure.
So how worried should Israeli leaders be by the new nomination? The conditions on the ground that drive American policy are unchanged. And on Iran, the final decision continues to rest with Obama, who has repeatedly promised, and many would say delivered, a relatively aggressive policy, albeit one that has fallen short of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for a clear red line that, if crossed by the regime in Tehran, would trigger US-led military intervention.
In the end then, the question today, after Hagel’s nomination by the president to succeed Leon Panetta as secretary of defense, is the same as the basic question faced by Israeli planners yesterday, before it. What does Obama, not Hagel, have in mind on Iran?