Chuck Hagel is not someone I’d pick to be in a position of power. He’s a conservative Republican, a military guy who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. According to Forbes, during Hagel’s tenure representing Nebraska in the Senate, “he favored school prayer, missile defense and drilling in Alaska, while opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and limits on assault guns. He voted in favor of every defense authorization bill that came up during the dozen years he served, while opposing extension of Medicare benefits to prescription drugs. Such stances earned him a lifetime rating of 84% percent from the American Conservative Union….”
Granted, we’re talking about defense secretary, not someone responsible for domestic policy, so the most important consideration for me is not the nominee’s stance on social issues, but his or her willingness to prevent wars. If we assume this person has to have been a member of Congress, I’d start with Barbara Lee or Dennis Kucinich, not Chuck Hagel.
But that isn’t the choice we face. The alternatives to Hagel won’t be the heroic Oakland congresswoman or the committed advocate of a Department of Peace; they’ll be military bureaucrats who have never said a word outside their respective bosses’ talking-point boxes. At the end of the day, this isn’t about Hagel versus any other candidate; this is about what President Obama is signaling by nominating him as secretary of defense—and about the political forces arrayed against him.
Hagel’s nomination engendered bitter, angry opposition from the moment it was floated as a trial balloon in December. That Obama went ahead with it despite repeated threats that Hagel would never be confirmed by the Senate is a good sign that—at least on some critical foreign policy issues—the president is not prepared to allow either the Israel lobby or the hard-core neoconservatives to decide his choice.
The opposition came from both of these distinct but overlapping Washington cohorts. Pro-Israel forces are outraged that President Obama would appoint someone who once had the temerity to warn that the lobby “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. Of course Hagel should have probably used the term “Israel lobby” rather than his sloppy “Jewish lobby” label, which ignored the huge influence of right-wing Christian Zionism—and Hagel himself apologized for the careless phrasing. But whatever the language, it’s a significant exposé of the perceived power of this lobby—so much so that AIPAC, its most authoritative component, refrained from criticizing Hagel as soon as the nomination became official, leaving the most extremist elements, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, to continue the public attacks.
We should be clear: Hagel is no supporter of a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict based on human rights, international law and equality for all. He told Haaretz that a solution “should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity.” That’s code for accepting Israel’s two-tiered legal system, which privileges Jewish over non-Jewish citizens and denies Palestinians crucial rights available only to Jews. But again, we aren’t looking at a choice between a supporter of international law and an uncritical supporter of Israel—so the possibility of a defense secretary who acknowledges the danger of putting Israeli interests above those of the United States and is willing to challenge the Israel lobby is a pretty interesting development. (If Obama also saw the nomination as a chance to pay back Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his all but official endorsement of Mitt Romney last year, that’s likely just a bonus.)