(March 18, 2021 / JNS) Should we really care whether Colin Kahl becomes undersecretary of defense for policy? Some friends of Israel think that defeating his nomination for the third-ranking civilian post in the Pentagon matters a great deal because his positions on Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are troubling.
But as every president who wins an election likes to say, elections have consequences. Kahl served as deputy secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Obama administration and then spent three years as then-Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor. Now that Biden is president, it’s hardly surprising that he has rewarded his loyal aide with another plum assignment.
In the past, presidents received a great deal of latitude when it came to naming cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries on the premise that whoever won the election was entitled to have people he trusted to carry out his policies. Every once in a while, a skeleton in the nominee’s closet would torpedo the confirmation process. But for the most part, each presidential transition was carried out in a fairly orderly fashion as one set of Republican courtiers and policy “experts” and another similarly credentialed group of Democrats exchanged jobs.
Those whose party lost the election transitioned to cushy jobs in lobbying and law firms, corporations and academic sinecures, where they patiently awaited the next time their meal tickets would be punched in the White House Mess or in similar dining rooms in the State Department, Pentagon or less exalted departments. And when that time came, those who had done a good job flattering the winning presidential candidate could move up to an even more powerful post.
But the era in which Washington politics was a game for ladies and gentlemen has ended. Over the course of the last few presidential transitions, filling the approximately 1,250 positions (out of the 4,000 total federal patronage jobs in the gift of any president) that require Senate confirmation has become a nightmare of partisan warfare.
Kahl’s nomination hangs in the balance with Republicans and pro-Israel groups like Christians United for Israel going all out to stop him. In a Senate split 50-50 between the parties, all it will take is one Democratic defector (which some think might be moderate West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin).
So in that sense, the resentment of the nominee’s friends is understandable. After all, while Kahl is being attacked by critics for his record on the issues and his partisan tweets taking vicious potshots at the Trump administration, what they are really complaining about are the policies of Obama and Biden. In all he did, Kahl was merely being a good soldier of the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy apparatus. So it’s not surprising that other members of that club of Obama alumni and members of the establishment of which Kahl is a member in good standing would be circling the wagons around him in an effort to portray him as an ardent friend of Israel rather than an implacable enemy.
To that end, Martin Indyk and Dan Shapiro, who served as ambassadors to Israel from the Clinton and Obama administrations, have joined with other veteran peace processors like Dennis Ross to circulate a letter in his defense. They claim that Kahl is being “smeared” by CUFI.
That’s simply false. There is nothing in their broadsides against him about his belief in appeasement of Iran and its terrorist arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that’s untrue. Nor is their highlighting of his conviction that Israel must be muscled into compliance with demands for suicidal concessions to give up territory to form a Palestinian state.
Still, his friends are undaunted and cite not merely the word of other Democratic time-servers in past administrations, but the testimony of three retired Israeli generals who speak of his good character and ultimate good intentions toward the Jewish state.
Whether this is enough to convince Manchin to fall in line in order to create the 50-50 tie that would be broken in Kahl’s favor by Vice President Kamala Harris remains to be seen. Manchin, who helped sink the nomination of another Biden appointee—liberal think-tank head Neera Tanden—because of her intemperate tweets about political foes may come to the same conclusion about Kahl’s trolling of Republicans on behalf of his pro-Iran beliefs. Some of the senators who will decide his fate have taken his calling them “the party of ethnic cleansing” personally and consider his claim that prediction that “we’re all going to die” because of Trump’s Middle East policies illustrates his “hyperpartisanship” and bad judgment.
Democrats think a GOP that winked at former President Donald Trump’s outrageous tweets has a lot of gall for censuring Kahl for the same sin. But Kahl has apologized and promised to play nicer in the future, a statement that looks to be every bit as disingenuous as those of his critics.
No matter how this battle plays out, the real issue here isn’t so much Kahl’s fitness for office. Rather, it’s the way his appointment and so many others in the new administration reflect the rotation of so-called “experts” and partisan officeholders between the private and public sectors.
The problem is that this elite set of peace processors have been foisting the same set of discredited assumptions on the American people across different administrations. Their conviction about the centrality of the Palestinians to Middle East peace has been rejected by most Arab governments and exposed by the success of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords. The aftermath of the Iran deal was supposed to give Tehran a chance—in President Obama’s words—“to get right with the world.” Instead, it has made the region less safe as the Islamist republic was enriched, empowered and emboldened to embark on further military adventures in Syria and Yemen, threatening both Arab states and Israel alike.
What the nation needs is not just a different set of establishment figures who are affiliated with the two major parties; it requires more people coming from outside the ranks of the usual suspects, who can bring fresh ideas and approaches to problems that the “experts” have failed time and again to solve. Foreign-policy veterans are like economists in that the failure of their policies never seems to affect their career paths, especially since—like Kahl and his fellow Obama alumni reunion club members Wendy Sherman and Robert Malley —they appear either incapable or unwilling to learn from their mistakes.
Nor are Republicans exempt from this practice, as their appointees in both Bush administrations had the same strengths and faults as their Democratic counterparts.
For all of its problems—one being the continuous turnover in top jobs in Trump’s administration—some of his picks were people who had different work backgrounds than establishment figures and hadn’t all gone to the same schools and served in the same think tanks.
Biden’s victory, of course, means that the brief era of giving a chance to amateurs like Jared Kushner—who had no qualifications for his job leading Mideast policy other than a presidential father-in-law, yet achieved more success than any of his better-credentialed predecessors and successors—is over.
The 2020 election will have consequences in many respects, not least for foreign policy, so we’re about to get another dose of establishment expertise. Expecting this bunch of well-connected know-it-alls to do anything but commit the same blunders is a sucker’s bet. As the cranky and witty sage of journalism H.L. Mencken once put it, “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” Until both Democrats and Republicans learn to stop recycling their clueless “experts,” that’s exactly what Americans—and the people of the Middle East—can look forward to.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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