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United States

Bickering over US nominations reveals tensions

Republicans have angered President Obama by delaying the confirmation of his new national security team. But no power vacuum is imminent because the incumbents stay in office until their successors are chosen.

Senate Republicans have temporarily blocked a confirmation vote on Chuck Hagel as US defense secretary. The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director has also been delayed.

"In the end, though, the implications are not terribly significant because both of them will end up being confirmed," Xenia Dormandy, Senior Fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, told DW. In the meantime, incumbents Leon Panetta and Michael Morell (acting CIA chief) will stay in their respective positions at the Pentagon and the CIA until their successors are approved. No power vacuum ensues.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is greeted by Col. John Shafer after arriving to greet troops at Foward Operating Base Shukvani, Afghanistan, Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (Foto:Scott Olson, Pool/AP/dapd)

Panetta wants to leave the military behind and retire to his walnut farm in California

But the struggle to get Hagel and Brennan in their new positions shows just how partisan politics are in the US, says Dormandy, an expert on the United States' international role. Tensions are running high not only between Republicans and Democrats, but also within President Barack Obama's own Democratic Party, as it is mainly Democratic wrangling that has held back Brennan's approval, she said.

Obama had actually hoped for more bipartisan cooperation following his reelection. Lora Anne Viola, Assistant Professor for North American Foreign Policy at the John F. Kennedy Institute at Berlin's Free University, said Hagel's nomination was also in part an effort to "build a bridge to the Republicans."

Not about the issues

"I think the whole debate about Hagel and Brennan simply reflects the political infighting between the Republicans and the Democrats," Viola told DW. "It has very little to do with a real debate about US security issues. Also, I don't think Obama chose these two simply because he wanted to set a symbolic symbol for bipartisanship." Brennan was Obama's White House counterterrorism adviser for years and there is mutual trust between the two men. In the case of Hagel, Viola said, Obama would not bring someone on board who "didn't steer his foreign policy in the direction he wants it to take."

Hagel at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Hagel was given a tough ride by those who think he's too soft on Iran

Mark Jacobson, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC, said the delay in Hagel's confirmation had to do with a lot of issues, going all the way back to his position on Iraq back in the early 2000's.

"This is about Republican Party politics and the feeling by some that Hagel, by moving to the moderate center, betrayed the Party," Jacobson told DW. But Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have in the meantime said they will no longer stand in the way of Hagel's approval.

"The Republicans have realized that this strategy of fighting against Hagel in particular, but also Brennan was not successful," Viola said. "It has done more damage to the Republicans than what they had possibly hoped to achieve by demonstrating a strong presence against Obama."

Foreign policy unlikely to change

Critics maintain that Hagel isn't supportive enough of US ally Israel and is too lenient towards Iran in his stance. But the latter criticism fits into Obama's aims in dealing with Tehran.

"Although Obama has said that all options are on the table regarding Iran, it's relatively clear that he does not favor a military intervention - and he has stressed this point again by nominating Hagel," Viola said. Hagel had also said during the Senate hearings that all options were open on Iran. "But since his position towards Iran has a lot more to do with diplomacy, we can assume that he will support Obama in this respect."

But Hagel will by no means be a driving force, but rather a supporting factor for policy issues. Obama made it clear during his first four years in office that he held the key to foreign policy and national security in the White House - and in the West Wing, to be more precise. Analysts agreed that there was no indication this would change in his second term.

According to Jacobson, the big decisions about foreign policy and national security would "continue to emanate from the West Wing - as well they should," he said. "These are the most important decisions about our nation."

In search of a NATO commander

On an international level, the internal strife over Hagel and Brennan plays no role. "I think in the end the Europeans just want to make sure they have a strong military leader at the head of defense because they're going to have to be working with that person and a strong representative in Europe," Dormandy said.

ACHTUNG ARCHIVBILD U.S. General John Allen, commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, speaks during U.S. Independence Day celebrations in Kabul, in this July 4, 2012 file photo. Allen has decided to retire rather than proceed with his nomination as the NATO supreme allied commander, President Barack Obama said on February 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/Files (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)

John Allen has decided not to become NATO supreme commander

For Europeans, the post that is more important than Hagel or Brennan is that of the supreme allied commander (SACEUR) at NATO's headquarters in Brussels. Filling this position will be challenging for Obama. "This is a very serious slot that he has to fill and there aren't that many people who can fill it," Dormandy said. US General John Allen, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has announced he will not take up Obama's offer of the post, instead choosing to retire and care for his ailing wife. Allen had been caught up but later cleared in the scandal that forced CIA chief David Petraeus to resign. General Philip Breedlove, a top US Air Force commander, has now emerged as one of the leading contenders for the NATO post.

The White House and Pentagon have not said who would now be nominated to take over as NATO supreme commander in Europe. Allen was a very well-known and respected figure on both sides of the Atlantic. He also served for 19 months as ISAF commander in Afghanistan, and was extremely knowledgeable about that region. Dormandy said this was a key requirement for the next NATO commander.

"You really want someone who understands Afghanistan and has lived through Afghanistan because the big issue until the end of 2014 is how everybody will leave Afghanistan," Dormandy said. "Then the big issue post-2014 is: how do you take the incredible lessons learned and the relationships built through NATO operations in Afghanistan and keep them rolling even though Afghanistan isn't happening anymore and NATO is going through its internal 'Angst' if you will?"

According to Viola, the new NATO commander also needs to be knowledgeable about Europe. "Obama will probably try to choose someone who is already based in Europe and who has good connections in Europe," she said. "This would counteract any fears of an unknown figure taking over this important position at NATO."

Whoever it ends up being, Jacobson said it was important for that person to be familiar with a coalition experience, since most of his time is spent as SACEUR.

"You need to have someone who has that coalition experience," he said. "The staff is multinational from more than 28 nations, since you also have some observer nations as well, and you are commanding forces that are not US. It requires a type of personality who can understand that it's not just the politics of the United States but it's the politics of 28 nations."

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