President Barack Obama shakes hands with his choice for Defense Secretary, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, center, after announcing Hagel’s nomination, Monday, January 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Chuck Hagel isn’t anyone 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 magazine, during Hagel’s tenure 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.” Forbes, of course, thinks this is all great.
Me, not so much. But okay, we’re talking about Secretary of Defense, not someone responsible for domestic and social policy. Well, first of all, if I had to choose a secretary of defense, I’d start with someone who recognized that their first requirement would be to transform the US war machine from an aggressive into a defensive institution… something it’s never been before. If we assume it had to be 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 defender of the Department of Peace, they’ll be military bureaucrats who have never said a word outside their respective boss’s talking point boxes.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about Hagel versus anybody. This is about what President Obama is signaling by his nomination of Hagel 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 two weeks ago. And the fact that Obama went ahead with the nomination, despite the opposition and the threats that the Senate would never confirm Hagel, is a good indication that on at least some critical foreign policy issues, Obama is not prepared to allow either the pro-Israeli lobbies or the hard-core neoconservatives, in and outside of Washington, to determine whom he could and could not choose as Secretary of Defense.
The opposition was from both of those separate, though overlapping, Washington cohorts. Pro-Israel forces are outraged that President Obama might appoint someone who once had the temerity to warn that the lobby “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. Of course, it would have been better if Hagel had properly identified the “pro-Israel lobby” rather than the sloppy “Jewish lobby” description, which ignores the huge influence of right-wing Christian Zionism; Hagel himself apologized for the careless language. (If Israel didn’t identify itself as a “Jewish state,” with all the resulting apartheid policies that go along with it, it might be easier to distinguish.) But whatever the language, it’s a significant exposé of the perceived power of the lobby, enough that AIPAC, the lobby’s most authoritative component, pulled back from criticizing Hagel as soon as the nomination was final, leaving the most extremist components, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, to continue the attacks.
We should be clear, of course—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 Ha’aretz that any 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 Palestinian citizens crucial rights available only to Jews. Again, we aren’t looking at a choice between supporters of international law and an uncritical supporter of Israel—but having a Secretary of Defense who acknowledges the danger of putting Israeli interests above those of the United States and willing to challenge the pro-Israel lobbies is a pretty interesting development. (And if Obama saw the nomination also as an opportunity to pay back Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his all-but-official endorsement of Mitt Romney during last year’s election, that’s likely just a bonus.)