Obama’s nominations of former senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan as CIA director signal second-term course adjustments at institutions that have been dominated by their lethal assignments during more than a decade of war.
The nominations also set the stage for confirmation fights driven not only by criticism of Hagel and Brennan but also by the foreign policy approach they represent.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, shares Obama’s aversion to military intervention. White House officials described him as ideally suited to managing the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the shrinking Pentagon budget. But he has attracted fierce criticism from groups that question the strength of his support for Israel.
Brennan is a 25-year CIA veteran who has voiced concern over the agency’s paramilitary mission and has imposed tighter controls on targeted killing, even while his White House tenure has been marked by a massive increase in the agency’s drone campaign.
Four years ago, Brennan withdrew from consideration to lead the CIA amid questions about his role as a high-ranking CIA official at a time when the agency employed brutal interrogation techniques — a link certain to resurface when he faces a Senate vote.
Both men are known for their strong personalities and strongly held views. Still, associates described them as comfortable fits for an administration that favors covert action — including Predator drone strikes on al-Qaeda targets and cyber-sabotage of Iran’s nuclear plants — over conventional force.
In announcing the nominees, Obama said that their agenda would include “ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle, [and] preparing for the full range of threats.” He also emphasized their experiences in the lower ranks of the institutions they would run, saying both served overseas and understand firsthand “the consequences of decisions that we make in this town.”
Obama avoided one confirmation fight when U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice withdrew from consideration to be secretary of state amid criticism of her role in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Instead, Obama turned to a compromise pick, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). The former presidential candidate has established relationships with foreign leaders that could help the administration push for tougher sanctions on Iran, expand its pursuit of al-Qaeda beyond Yemen and Pakistan, and deal with the Syrian civil war.
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