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Let Washington avoid the wrong debate

The real question that should be addressed in Senate confirmation hearings for Kerry at State and Hagel at Defence is the inexorable militarisation of US foreign policy

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US President Barack Obama
Gulf News

Republicans, and even a few Democrats, have made it clear that US President Barack Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, as the next US Defence Secretary is going to touch off a major confirmation fight. The unfortunate thing about this is not so much the bitter, divisive debate we appear to be in for, but rather that this argument is likely to focus on the wrong issues.

Outside Washington, the choice of a new Pentagon chief has generated less interest and pre-selection speculation than Obama’s choice of John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

That is understandable: the Secretary of State is the highest-ranking and highest-profile position in a US president’s cabinet and the one of most immediate interest to foreign audiences. He or she is the person through whom world leaders communicate with the uppermost reaches of the US government.

Over the last generation, however, a lot has changed about how Washington deals with the wider world. The real question that ought to be addressed in Senate confirmation hearings for Kerry at State and Hagel at Defence concerns the inexorable militarisation of US foreign policy and whether it will continue.

In area after area of world affairs, the military now represents the leading edge of US diplomacy. I am not referring just to actual wars, like the one the US fought in Iraq and continues to fight in Afghanistan, but also to places like Syria where the challenges facing the US are, at least superficially, diplomatic and humanitarian, while the solutions under debate often rely heavily on the skills of soldiers and intelligence operatives. For all of the time that Hillary Clinton has spent attending conferences on the situation in Syria, the aspect of the conflict most often discussed in the US itself is the military and financial assistance given to anti-Bashar Al Assad rebels and whether it is making its way into the right hands.

In this, as in too many other things, Afghanistan serves as both model and cautionary tale. There the US operates as part of a broad coalition, involving both civilian and military officials, but it is the military officials in general, and the American generals in particular, who make virtually every decision of consequence.

The fact that the Obama administration’s first ambassador to Kabul was a three-star general who retired from active service to take up the post said a lot. When the general/ambassador stepped down, his successor was Ryan Crocker, one of the most distinguished American career diplomats of his generation. It was telling, however, that praise for Crocker’s appointment focused less on his experience in the region as a former ambassador to Pakistan than on the fact that in his previous post as ambassador to Iraq, he had shown an ability to work well with the US military.

It is no secret how this has come to pass. In the two decades since the Gulf War, the military has emerged as the most respected institution in American life. Meanwhile, in the 11 years since the 9/11 attacks, the US defence budget has roughly doubled.

The State Department, on the other hand, has for decades been an institution innately distrusted by many ordinary Americans who do not really know what it does and (unfairly) consider it remote and elitist.

The result is a diplomatic corps chronically starved for resources, even as the military gets pretty much everything it wants (and sometimes finds eager congressmen appropriating money that it has not even asked for). The, perhaps inevitable, result of this has been the outsourcing of foreign policy to the Pentagon. The generals simply have more resources available to them when it comes to making friends in remote foreign capitals and more clout on Capitol Hill when it comes time to ask Congress to approve what the administration of the day has promised.

Not everyone at the Pentagon is happy with this situation. During his tenure as Defence Secretary, Robert Gates complained that the military was being forced to perform jobs better suited to diplomats and aid administrators and even sought to redirect portions of the Pentagon’s budget to the State Department.

This is a problem that merits much more scrutiny than it gets, and confirmation hearings for a new defence secretary are the perfect place for it. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be what we will see discussed before the Senate in the coming weeks.

Kerry is likely to sail through his confirmation with few questions being asked about what resources the State Department needs, but is not getting. Hagel seems certain to face a barrage of questions about his views on Israel, Iran sanctions and gay rights that have little to do with the needs of the institution he hopes to lead. Americans will see the military continue to take over foreign policy little by little — despite the fact that even the Pentagon would rather that did not happen.

Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.