National Security Nominees Won't Impress Congress, Experts Say

Obama's national security nominees will get harangued by Congress, conservative experts say.

President Barack Obama speaks during a new conference in the East Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in Washington, to announce his nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, as the new Defense Secretary as Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stands left.

President Barack Obama announces his nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, as the new Defense Secretary on Jan. 7.

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The halls of Congress are familiar stomping grounds to Senate veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, the nominees for secretaries of Defense and State, respectively, and a familiar process for CIA director-elect John Brennan, who has advised President Obama for the last four years. A group of conservative analysts met Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative D.C.-based think tank, to determine what kinds of questions and issues these nominees will likely have to face.

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Experts say some of the candidates' experience touted by the White House may prove to be a hindrance during the nomination process.

"Chuck Hagel has no particular experience leading a large organization, ever," says Steven P. Bucci, director for Foreign Policy Studies at Heritage and retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer. "The Department of Defense is the biggest corporation in the world."

Bucci also cut in to Obama's overtures regarding Hagel's military experience as a sergeant and infantry squad team leader in Vietnam.

"I salute his service, but so what? There are hundreds of thousands of veterans," Bucci says. "Just having a uniform does not qualify you to run the Department of Defense. I don't think his service in Vietnam is relevant at all."

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He did not mention Hagel's experience in the private sector as a president and CEO.

John Brennan may face problems returning to the agency where he spent most of his career, following more than four years spent on Obama's national security advisory team.

"You have to have the president's confidence in that job. You also have to have the ability to stand up and walk out and say 'No,'" says Ronald Marks, a retired CIA official and intelligence counselor on Capitol Hill.

The next CIA director will be under increased pressure from the White House, he says, as well as an agency where senior officials are known for not blindly complying with orders, but questioning their superiors.

This pressure will materialize in difficult decisions on staffing levels and the agency's role coming out of major ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In subsequent years, field agents will return to Langley to perform comparatively unexciting work, says Marks. Downsizing the agency and potential budget cuts will also force hard decisions.

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Facing these issues, members of Congress will want to determine if Brennan will return to Langley as an independent leader, or an extension of the Obama administration's national security expectations.

"Will [Brennan] become director of CIA? Or will he be the national security guy who is heading up CIA?," Marks says.

John Kerry has a lot to live up to in the wake of Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, whose work has won the wide support of the American public.

Helle Dale, Heritage's senior fellow for Public Diplomacy, says Kerry is going to have to re-evaluate the chief issues he's highlighted during his almost 30-year tenure in the Senate.

"John Kerry comes in with a rather limited perspective and will have rather global issues to deal with," says Dale. He has included climate change and arms reduction as among his highest priorities, she adds. As the chief diplomat for the United States, Kerry will have to consider global public opinion as well as America's role in global issues. Middle East relations should be front-and-center, she says, as well as nuanced relationships with countries such as Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela.

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"That has not been one of his front-burner issues," she says.

Congress will likely call him on that, Dale says, along with questions about his plans for Iran, as well as the remnants of Arab Spring protests.

Kerry will be hampered by the ghost of Clinton's relative conviviality, she adds.

"Compared to John Kerry, I think we will look back on the Hillary Clinton era as kind of warm and fuzzy," says Dale, adding Kerry's demeanor is stiff and he doesn't reach out easily. "He has a legacy there he has to live up to. And he has some things to work on as a diplomat and ambassador."