Leadership is reflected in the will to disappoint at least a few friends with clear decisions in pursuit of principle. It's not about safely laying back and gathering acolytes by splitting every difference.
Barack Obama is a congenitally split personality. His interest in naming Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to his cabinet demonstrates once again that he has no appetite for leadership on the life-and-death decisions presidents make since Congress ceded its war-making powers to the Executive branch after World War II.
As he did in a smarmy, stage-crafted 2009 speech to teenage cadets at West Point, Obama is once again punting on foreign policy. Instead of saying and doing what he believes, our president wants to assemble another sort-of team of rivals. Abusing that popular Doris Kearns Goodwin construct about Lincoln's cabinet, Obama indulges himself in the luxury of leading from behind. It enables him to avoid a decision to withdraw immediately from Afghanistan the young men and women who are sacrificing life and limb for American empire-building that serves no clear moral or national-security purpose.
Our always-conflicted leader has chosen to nominate John Kerry, the ultimate Washington foreign policy consensus expert, to be Secretary of State. That's the same John Kerry who was both for and against the war in Vietnam, and for and against the war in Iraq. The very same presidential candidate who told us in August of 2004 he would have voted for the resolution authorizing Bush-Cheney's elective war in Iraq—even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. The same John Kerry who told Congress in 1971, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" And who said in March, 2004, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion [supplemental appropriation for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan] before I voted against it." The same John Kerry…well, you can look up additional dithering by the senator from Massachusetts.
President Obama wants to nominate another wounded and decorated Vietnam vet, Chuck Hagel, for Secretary of Defense. Unlike Kerry—and to his credit—Hagel used his Senate seat to speak against his own party's elective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel has conflicts of his own and Washington's conservatives have made it clear that they don't want Hagel anywhere near the Pentagon. He voted for the Iraq War resolution, but on reflection spoke out against that neo-con nightmare. Like many, he supported taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan, but then questioned why we were still there a decade later under Obama's presidency. Hagel is no saint or unerring savant, in our saintless and savantless Federal City.
But there are important differences between Hagel's revisions of his thoughts and those of President Obama and John Kerry. The Nebraskan risked offending his own militaristic Republican base. As a senator—not just a young, ambitious, camera-friendly, anti-Nixon, anti-Vietnam war veteran—Hagel wasn't content to let a last man die for mistakes of a weekend warrior, a dilettante Constitutional law professor, or a born-to-the-manor foreign policy expert.
Recall that Barack Obama was nominated and elected in 2008 as the candidate who was opposed to "dumb wars." But he was an anti-war poseur. Within 10 months of inauguration, Obama reversed course to please the bipartisan industry that demands a permanent state of military conflict and rising defense outlays as a jobs program for AFL-CIO congressional Democrats and as corporate welfare for K Street Capitol Hill Republicans.
And John Kerry? Could there be a purer human distillation of the Washington Rules described by our most eloquent anti-war voice, Andrew Bacevich, in his book of that title? Since he arrived in the Senate in 1985, Kerry has been a primary player leading us down "America's Path to Permanent War," as Bacevich's subtitle puts it.
Assuming his nomination isn't proactively yanked by the president, here's the question that Hagel first needs to answer: Should he allow himself to be used as a pawn in Barack Obama's continuing deflection of presidential responsibility?
Tempting as it may be to get inside the tent, Hagel should decline. Given Obama's uninspiring track record, he won't have a major impact on policy. Far more likely, he'll serve as a prop for a president who asserts the right to kill even American citizens without judicial oversight and to send manned and unmanned planes anywhere he chooses.
By refusing to become part of Obama's war machine, Hagel can trumpet an important statement: Bring the troops home now. Not in 2014. Not in 2013. By noon tomorrow. Hagel can demand that not one more young man or woman be the last to die for a horrific mistake.