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Coffee House

The need for self-assured American power has never been greater

8 January 2013

4:47 PM

8 January 2013

4:47 PM

The Europeanisation of American politics continues apace with President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defence. Known for his dovish views on Iran, his opposition to the war in Iraq, and scepticism of America’s relationship with Israel, Hagel’s nomination is a contentious one.

Obama’s first term cabinet was a diverse one, with the reappointment of several Bush administration officials including Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Robert Gates as Defence Secretary. It is hard to think of two more sensitive positions for an incoming president given the challenges America faces at home and abroad.

In his second term the president is invariably thinking of his legacy and plans to leave an indelible mark with wide ranging social reforms. None tempts Obama more than the issue of health care reform. His ambitions for the state to play a greater role in subsidising health care provided the mood music for much of his first term, but will take centre stage now.

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Funding those plans is a herculean feat with cuts needed everywhere to make them a reality. Budgets across almost every sector have been squeezed as a result, with the defence budget being one of the few to have escaped the pinch so far. Yet, the difficulties of sponsoring welfare reform and maintaining military dominance are axiomatic.

Obama is now preparing himself to confront the defence establishment. He could make his point by highlighting the decline of al-Qaeda, but as the Arab Spring leads towards ever increasing uncertainties, he’ll face stern resistance. What about the influx of arms into the Sahel following Gaddafi’s demise? Or the proliferation of new jihadist organisations in North Africa? And America may yet find itself needing military muscle to stare down both Damascus and Tehran.

These are fears Hagel will be expected to assuage while defence spending is rolled back, a task Secretary of State nominee John Kerry will be expected to help him with.  Together they represent a triumph of the belief that America should approach the world with a light touch. Indeed, so invested are they in the primacy of diplomacy that, like the Owl of Minerva, they believe its wings should spread even at dusk.

That approach, which has a rather preserved-in-amber feel, led Hagel and Kerry to champion the merits of Assad’s Syria just a few years ago. ‘While many doubt Syria’s intentions, we have real leverage and some inducements that have more value to Syria than cost to us’ they wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

With the contours of power still far from settled in the Middle East, the need for self-assured American power has never been greater. American statesmen, typically more sceptical and world-weary than their European counterparts, are not easily seduced by the fashionable ambiguities of ‘inducement’, ‘leverage’, and ‘engagement’. If they can find a way onto the Senate committees needed to approve Obama’s nominations, they may yet have an opportunity to stall these appointments.

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