WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is assembling a national security team designed for an era of downsized but enduring conflict, a team that will be asked to preside over the return of U.S. troops and wield power through the targeted use of sanctions, special operations forces and drone strikes.
Obama's nominations of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to lead the CIA signal second-term course adjustments at institutions that have been dominated by their lethal assignments during more than a decade of war.
Those adjustments could include returning the CIA's focus to its core mission of gathering intelligence. The Pentagon faces an even more aggressive restructuring to balance budget cuts against threats, including China's ascendent military and emerging al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa and the Middle East.
The nominations also set the stage for confirmation fights driven not only by criticism of Hagel and Brennan but also by the foreign policy approach they represent.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, shares Obama's aversion to military intervention. White House officials described him as ideally suited to managing the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the shrinking Pentagon budget. But he has attracted criticism from groups that question his support for Israel.
Brennan is a 25-year CIA veteran who has voiced concern over the agency's paramilitary mission and has imposed tighter controls on targeted killing. Four years ago, he withdrew from consideration to be CIA director amid questions about his role as a high-ranking CIA official at a time when the agency employed brutal interrogation techniques — a link certain to resurface when he faces a Senate vote.
In announcing the nominees on Monday, Obama said that their agenda would include "ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle, (and) preparing for the full range of threats."
Obama avoided one confirmation fight when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration to be secretary of state amid criticism of her role in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Instead, Obama turned to a compromise pick, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. The former presidential candidate has established relationships with foreign leaders that could help the administration push for tougher sanctions on Iran, expand its pursuit of al-Qaida beyond Yemen and Pakistan, and deal with the Syrian civil war.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama's selection of Kerry, Hagel and Brennan reflects a change in foreign policy priorities for the second term.
Rhodes said all three nominees share Obama's basic view of the world and America's place in it, a view that favors multilateral alliances and a reliance on intelligence and lethal technology, holding war as a last resort. "These are three men well suited to that task," he said.