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Obama’s nominations a nod to drones

The choice of Hagel foreshadows a leaner, drone-focused Pentagon
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Last Monday, President Obama announced the nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to be the next Secretary of Defense. Assuming the Senate confirmation goes smoothly, Hagel’s nomination foreshadows a leaner Pentagon under Obama’s second term. The cost? A leaner Pentagon means an extensive drone-program at its core.

Hagel’s nomination is certainly an interesting one. As a senator, he served on the Foreign Relations Committee as well as the Intelligence Committee. While he voted for the Iraq War, he later became one of its chief critics. As early as 2005, he commented on the “parallel emerging” between Iraq and Vietnam, a move that significantly contradicted the Republican party line. Hagel’s criticism was even more potent because he himself received two Purple Hearts for his service in the Vietnam War. In 2005 he told the New York Times, “To question your government is not unpatriotic — to not question your government is unpatriotic, America owes its men and women in uniform a policy worthy of their sacrifices.”

The question is, what does this record mean for the future of the Department of Defense? It means a non-interventionist Republican. It also means a Republican that will slash the Pentagon budget. In an era of austerity, Hagel will be able to move towards a leaner, smarter, and more importantly, a cheaper military.

For a Democrat president to nominate a Republican is not uncommon. Prior to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Obama kept on Republican Robert M. Gates. In Clinton’s second term, he nominated Republican William Cohen. Why? There is a public perception in America that Republicans are better at handling defense. While this is certainly a caricature, many Democrats know Americans don’t trust them to deploy power. This has been the logic behind the president’s decision not to reform the Pentagon during his first term: the risk of being seen as anti-war is too great for most Democrats. But with Hagel, there is at least a chance for reform — that is why the choice of Hagel is a brilliant one.

There is, however, a catch — how does Hagel tone down the war in Afghanistan, thereby lowering expenditures, while still maintaining a strong counterterrorism strategy? The answer: drones. The drone program has clearly been a favourite of Obama’s during his first term.

Contrary to popular belief, the number of drones strikes has increased tenfold under Obama compared to George W. Bush. With Hagel in the Pentagon and drone-a-holic John Brennan nominated as CIA Director, drone use will only increase.

Despite the obvious ethical and legal controversies surrounding drone strikes, Obama has been anything but apprehensive about his nomination choices. To compare the nomination ceremony of Brennan and Hagel to that of John Kerry’s for Secretary of State is to compare Obama meeting his high school pals to his second cousin. Obama is gleeful about these nominations. Whether he is proud of this or not, they will set him down in history as the drone president.

Haley O’Shaughnessy is an International Relations Student who is an active member of Oxfam U of T.