Even supporters of Hagel’s nomination must admit that it is nearly impossible to find any support in his record for the idea of “prevention” that undergirds the strategy toward Iran. This concept, which has been publicly embraced by Obama, means that the United States should deter Iran not from using a bomb but, rather, from acquiring one — preventing Tehran peacefully, if possible; through military means, if necessary.
While Hagel has not specifically repudiated prevention, he has criticized key elements of the policy. He has expressed skepticismthat the United States should threaten Iran militarily; he has suggested that U.S. muscle-flexing in the Persian Gulf sours the possibility for a negotiated settlement with Iran; and he has been critical of the military option to delay or destroy the Iranian nuclear program.
In this context, the looming fight over Hagel’s confirmation has obscured the strategic repercussion of the nomination. That Obama chose a Pentagon nominee whose public record differs from his own on this critical issue says more about the president than it does about the nominee. Quite apart from the internal U.S. debate over Hagel’s worthiness to run the Defense Department, foreign leaders will have serious questions about the credibility of the president’s commitment to prevention. None is likely to talk openly about it; they will simply adjust their expectations accordingly.