The Senate confirmation hearings for John Brennan to head the CIA Thursday present a rare opportunity for bipartisan unity on Capitol Hill. Each party has its own particular reasons to oppose him: liberals are outraged by his record on interrogation and drones; conservatives are infuriated by his posture of appeasement towards radical Islam and Iran. And there is near-universal alarm at his alleged involvement in security leaks.
It is no secret why President Barack Obama picked Brennan for the job. Brennan has been an obedient political servant for the White House, defending some of its most controversial policies, twisting his own past positions (e.g. on waterboarding) to suit the administration’s talking points. As Steven Emerson documents extensively, Brennan’s eager enthusiasm for outreach to the Muslim world matches Obama’s own priorities.
Brennan perfectly epitomizes the schizophrenia of the Obama administration in the war on terror--itself a term that has been abandoned for political correctness, even as Bush administration policies on surveillance, targeted killings, and war powers have been extended and expanded. The unifying theme is not strategy, but political expediency, as Obama tried to balance a policy of appeasement with an image of military toughness.
Even the great success of Obama’s first term, the killing of Osama bin Laden, was tainted by the same ambivalence. The administration denied that bin Laden had been a representative of Islam, while at the same time arranging a hasty burial at sea that it insisted was somehow in line with Islamic funeral rites. The result was mere confusion and outrage--precisely the reactions that the administration had sought to avoid.
Brennan leaked details of that operation--incorrect details, as it turned out--and may also have been involved in leaks to the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty, according to Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch. Yet at the same time, the Obama administration hid key details about the bin Laden raid and burial from the American public, fighting in court to protect the confidentiality it had been eager to breach, selectively, with friendly media.
For Obama, what is most important about Brennan is his eagerness to play along. With newly-installed Secretary of State John Kerry, and the stalled-but-still-likely Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel, Brennan would form a triumvirate of appeasement, a trio known for its skepticism of U.S. power, its enthusiasm for withdrawal from the fight against extremism, and its policy mistakes, especially on Syria, Iran, and the Iraq surge.
Ironically, the fact that Brennan has made himself an empty vessel for Obama’s policies may increase his chances of confirmation. In the end, Democrats will overlook the weaknesses of the nominee in order to defend the administration, as they are doing with the Hagel confirmation. It is difficult to imagine a CIA nominee haunted by suspicions of leaks--Marc Thiessen has compiled a top ten--succeeding under any other president.
Despite criticism from both sides, most observers give Brennan good odds of passing through confirmation. He can hardly do worse than Hagel, after all, and even he has not yet lost Democratic support. Yet the Brennan confirmation hearings will also provide a rare opportunity for both parties to join the kind of vigorous inquiry that Democrats have preferred to avoid in other hearings--a fleeting but significant moment of bipartisanship.