My Turn: Good questions from Ayotte, troubling answers from Hagel
It came as no surprise during Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing to serve as defense secretary that Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte wanted to learn more about his views on Iran.
Iran is a leading state sponsor of terror that is aggressively seeking a nuclear weapons capability. The regime in Tehran has long engaged in bombastic and aggressive behavior, often using reckless language.
As a reminder, Iran took Americans hostage in 1979, actively supports terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and provided the roadside bombs that killed American men and women in Iraq. Dangerously, Iran has called for our close ally Israel to be wiped off the map, while oppressing the Iranian people and providing Iraqi militias training and explosives to kill our troops.
If a regime that engages in these sorts of activities ever acquired a nuclear weapons capability, it would represent a grave threat not only to American national security but to security and stability in the Middle East.
A recent column by Asher Mayerson focusing on Ayotte’s questioning of Hagel sought to defend Hagel’s efforts to block unilateral American sanctions against Iran (“Ayotte could learn a thing or two from Hagel,” Monitor Forum, Feb. 8).
Hagel explained his votes against sanctions on Iran by saying that he only opposed unilateral sanctions because they “don’t work and they just isolate the United States.”
Hagel is dangerously wrong on both counts. Unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, including sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil industry, have encouraged our international partners to follow suit. What Hagel and the author perhaps do not understand – but which Ayotte clearly does – is that U.S. unilateral sanctions are a powerful tool of American leadership.
Unilateral U.S. sanctions helped spur even more effective multilateral sanctions, which have inflicted a devastating blow to Iran’s economy. The U.S. strategy is to shift the ayatollahs’ cost-benefit analysis of their nuclear program in a more positive direction. Watching recent events, it is no wonder that states in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, ask whether they, too, ought to acquire nuclear weapons to deter Iran. These are just some of the stakes at risk with Iran’s nuclear program.
Perhaps this is why then-Sen. Barack Obama, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, and then-Sen. John Kerry all co-sponsored unilateral sanctions legislation, but which Hagel opposed.
Hagel’s consistent opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran puts him not only outside the mainstream of his own party – but, worse, well outside the mainstream of the administration in which he hopes to serve.
In fact, after Hagel left the Senate, the Senate voted 100-0 to support the unilateral imposition of sanctions against Iran’s financial sector. Shortly thereafter, the Europeans followed our lead. To me, that sounds precisely like the ability of American leadership to avert a Middle East catastrophe over Iran’s nuclear program.
Worse, the Mayerson column did not provide a complete and accurate picture of Ayotte’s exchange with Hagel. For example, while the author claimed that Hagel supports keeping all options on the table for preventing a nuclear capable Iran, he failed to mention that Ayotte asked Hagel about his 2006 comment in which he said that a military option “is not a viable, feasible or responsible option.” This is but one of several instances in which Hagel directly contradicted himself, giving inconsistent answers on fundamental questions that affect the nation’s security.
Unlike Hagel, who has suggested that military force should be taken off the table, I believe that the U.S. should keep all options on the table. I strongly agree with Ayotte that a credible threat of force against Iran reinforces diplomacy, empowers our diplomats and lessens the chance that military force will ever have to be used.
Finally, Mayerson also failed to mention that later in the hearing, Ayotte asked Hagel about a 2007 speech in which he said that the strategy of containing Iran remains relevant.
To be clear, President Obama rejects containment as a strategy because the objective of American policy is to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons – not to manage a nuclear-armed Iran.
Rightly, the prime minister of Israel and the U.S. Senate rejected a policy of containment. Although Hagel acknowledged that he once considered containment to be an option, he backtracked during the hearing – again, showing a disconcerting lack of consistency and perhaps inadequate preparation for the hearings.
Hagel even went so far as to tell Ayotte that it “doesn’t make any difference what I think.” Stunningly, an individual nominated to serve in one of the most important positions in the president’s Cabinet suggests that his views and beliefs are irrelevant.
I strongly agree with Mayerson that a war with Iran would be terrible. What would be far worse, however, is if the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism obtained the world’s most dangerous weapon.
(William C. Martel of Bedford is associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and author of Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.)