What Obama's Senate Mafia Means for America

Michael Hirsh
National Journal

In the summer of 2008, while the two of them were on a trip to Afghanistan, then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., gave a bit of advice to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. "I told Obama he should pick [Joe] Biden as his running mate," Hagel recalled in a 2010 interview with National Journal. "I said, 'He understands governance better than anyone else. In particular, he understands Congress. He understands how it fits together like no one else you could get. He's got the political piece. He 's got the policy piece. There's nobody in his league.'"

On Aug. 25 of that year, Obama did indeed name Biden as his vice presidential nominee. The move surprised many people. But apparently not Hagel.

On Monday, Hagel is expected to be named President Obama's Defense secretary, replacing Leon Panetta, while John Kerry , D-Mass., another old Obama colleague from the Senate who has influenced the president's thinking on Afghanistan (as have Hagel and Biden), was recently nominated to be secretary of State. Both choices were no doubt heartily approved by Biden, who has become one of the most powerful and influential vice presidents ever, even by his own testimony. "I literally get to be the last guy in the room with the president," Biden said in a speech in 2012. "That's our arrangement."

During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama spoke of his admiration for President Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” approach to picking his Cabinet, referring to the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obama later selected his No. 1 Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as his secretary of State. But what Obama is now assembling is more of a Team of Mentors, a group of old lions of the Senate who, along with Biden, helped to shape Obama's worldview during his brief stint as a freshman senator before he ran for president.

It's difficult to say for certain what this will mean for Obama's second-term foreign and defense policy, but some broad themes stand out. Kerry and Hagel, a generation older than Obama, are both Vietnam veterans who were, by their own admission, haunted by that experience; both are known for their prudence and judiciousness in the use of force (Hagel even came out against Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan, while Kerry supported it). Both will likely stand fully with Obama’s scaling-down of American military commitments abroad, and with his extreme stringency in applying U.S. military power in new crisis spots such as Libya and Syria. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s former policy-planning chief, told me last summer, Obama knows the American public is “heartily tired” of the “freedom agenda” approach to foreign policy that extended from Ronald Reagan through the second Bush administration, with Bill Clinton an occasional reluctant participant in humanitarian situations like Bosnia and Kosovo. “This is a guy who’s not going to waste our money and risk the lives of American soldiers unless he absolutely has to,” she said.  Kerry and Hagel are acutely aware of this as well; both hew closely to Powell Doctrine thinking about restraint in the use of hard power; both will probably counsel extreme caution in most trouble spots, with a wild-card possibility of bold new action in other areas, for example Mideast peacemaking.

For Obama’s second term, that suggests that any future "Obama doctrine" will also be a Kerry-Hagel-Biden doctrine. We will likely see something close to the status quo on Iran's sanctions policy,  and Obama's mix of tough realpolitik and engagement toward China. Interestingly, however, both Kerry and Hagel are also men who've fallen somewhat into eclipse with something to prove. In Hagel's case, the onetime GOP star found himself persona non grata in his party after his fierce opposition to the Iraq invasion and later the surge. As Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Kerry has had to claw his way back to respectability in the  Democratic Party after his humiliating loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential race, a defeat made all the more embarrassing by the "Swift-boating" attacks Kerry endured over his record as a war hero in Vietnam.

Kerry, a traditionalist who likes to get his hands dirty with direct mediation, played an invaluable role in bringing Hamid Karzai along in Afghanistan long after other key envoys, including Richard Holbrooke, had given up on the Afghan president. He’ll likely continue overseeing Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Hagel’s firm support; both men will probably also advocate a more forthright U.S. role in pressuring the Israelis and Palestinians toward new peace talks, and play key roles in overseeing transition in Syria and continuing to isolate Iran.

In Kerry and Hagel, Obama likely sees two statesmen who largely share his views and will be eager to follow up on his first-term foreign-policy theme: the "restoration of the United States' prestige and power in the world" after the Bush administration, in the words of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon (a former Biden aide). "We came in after an exhausting time for foreign policy and a huge expenditure of capital," Donilon said at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School on Nov. 28. Hagel, especially, has inveighed for years against military over-extension abroad. And the description that Donilon gave in his speech sounds like it could have been recycled from many of Hagel's and Kerry's own discussions about building cooperative military arrangements and engaging diplomatically. Donilon described the strategy of recovering from the Bush years as five-pronged: rebuild the U.S. economy; repair alliances frayed by Bush's unilateralism; fix neglected "great-power" relationships with Russia and China; shift focus from the Mideast, "where we were over-invested" (read: Bush went too far in invading Iraq), to East Asia; and pull together new groupings of nations--for example, including India, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey--to solve future problems of global governance.

Based on interviews with Obama administration officials and policy experts, the president is said to be focused on several major agenda items right now: stepping up nuclear nonproliferation; forcing nuclear surrender by Iran; making China a fair trader; transforming America's energy profile; and laying down long-term rules of the road for covert war. And despite the eagerness to leave the Mideast behind somewhat, the administration is likely to get dragged back in, which could mean a harder line with Israel, one that might also be in accord with past views expressed by Hagel especially. (Hagel has already been criticized by Jewish groups for his restrained view of Iran sanctions and his typically blunt statement, in a 2006 interview, that "the political reality is that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" on Capitol Hill.)

Kerry, meanwhile, has been carrying Obama's water on foreign policy for four years, marshaling votes on the START pact;, leading a valiant, if failed, effort on climate change; mediating in Sudan; and negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Mideast peace and Lebanon in the years before the latter engaged in a civil war with rebel forces.

Hovering over all of this is the presence of Biden who, to an extent little acknowledged, has been guiding Obama on foreign policy since the latter was a junior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee . At a critical hearing with the then-Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, in the spring of 2008, it was Biden who counseled Obama to lower expectations for what Iraq might look like after the U.S. withdrawal--a policy that later shaped both of their approaches to the debate on Afghanistan. Obama, by then a presidential candidate, earned plaudits by telling Petraeus: "When you have finite resources, you've got to define your goals tightly and modestly. I'm not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I'm trying to get to an endpoint." Biden said that exact language was suggested, behind the scenes, by him: "He asked for my advice."

Kerry, another old Senate hand--and Obama's predecessor as presidential nominee--has also lent his advice to Obama. In February of 2008 Kerry, Biden, and Hagel traveled to Afghanistan together for a now-famous dinner with Karzai at his palace. The three Senate heavyweights were upset about the corruption in Karzai's government, including runaway graft and alleged narcotics connections. Biden ultimately walked out, declaring, "This dinner is over." After Biden was elected vice president, relations between Karzai and the Obama administration fell into an even worse temper, and Biden counseled for a quick pullout. But Kerry's intervention helped Obama settle on a middle course, including a troop surge. After Karzai fixed the elections, it was Kerry who rescued things, persuading the Afghan president to hold a second round of voting. In 2010, shortly before his death, Holbrooke, described Kerry's role as "extraordinary." "He worked Karzai over the elections very effectively, talking to him very personally from the gut," Holbrooke told National Journal. "He talked about his own acceptance of the outcome in Ohio in 2004, in order to get Karzai to understand there was nothing wrong with getting a second round."

Now Obama is about to offer up a second round of foreign-policy decisions, with four years of hard-won experience under his belt. To some extent, it bespeaks enormous self-confidence that he would rely on a group of men whom he once regarded as mentors. (Hagel, who is anathema to many Republicans because of his brave stand against President Bush's Iraq invasion and general approach to the "war on terror," is expected to face a tough confirmation process; Kerry's will be far smoother. But both will likely be confirmed.) Now the eager student has become president. But clearly he is still seeking their advice, and he’ll no doubt get earfuls of it.