Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel speaking in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
The battle over Barack Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be US secretary of defense has many of the elements of a typical episode of insider bloodletting. These happen routinely in every administration whenever powerful interests perceive a threat to their power. Fortunately, this brawl carries with it the potential to explode some foreign policy shibboleths that have imprisoned insider thinking and undermined the nation’s interests and ideals for more than thirty years.
In almost every respect relevant to the position for which he was nominated, Hagel is remarkably well qualified. A highly decorated Vietnam veteran, he told an interviewer that he could recall promising himself during his time in Vietnam: ”If I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute. The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it—people just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it.” Despite a bevy of decidedly unorthodox views for a Republican senator, Hagel is also enormously respected by what remains of the old bipartisan foreign policy establishment. A number of its denizens, including former top national security officials calling themselves the Bipartisan Group, have taken out advertisements protesting what they believe to be the unfair attacks on ”a man of unshakable integrity and wisdom” and “a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics.”
Hagel is perhaps best known for his vociferous opposition to the Iraq War inside the Senate, which was noteworthy not only for his having been a Republican, but also because he had initially supported the invasion. This stand required immense intellectual self-confidence and personal courage, and it compares favorably with that of Washington insiders like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who remain stubbornly attached to the folly of their original (and misguided) arguments in favor of the invasion. For this reason alone, the Very Serious People at the Washington Post editorial page are correct to label Hagel as “near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.” (Interestingly, the Post editors see fit to condemn Hagel without once addressing Iraq, or their own complicity in the arguments that helped to perpetuate that war.)
Of greater concern to many than the wisdom of Hagel’s positions on previous pre-emptive attacks are his views on the potential ones that many in Washington appear eager to embrace. Hagel has been especially vocal in his support for negotiations rather than saber rattling when it comes to Iran. No less conspicuously, he has refused to march in lockstep with the demands that Israel’s right-wing government has consistently made of Washington to support its program of illegal settlement expansion on the West Bank, and he has criticized its failure to offer the Palestinians a compelling reason to return to the bargaining table. In addition, he is a critic of Pentagon “bloat” and—especially given his credibility as a veteran—will be able to enforce a degree of budgetary discipline unseen in the building since perhaps the Eisenhower administration. In other words, after four years of waffling, the Obama administration may actually be able to enforce the president’s own views and priorities on the military and foreign policy-making process with this pick.
Obama won two elections giving voice to these policies, but within the neocon-dominated punditocracy and a Congress subject to pressure by the increasingly extremist American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they are akin to kryptonite. Hagel’s critics have been quick to unsheathe the McCarthyite tactics employed whenever opposition to any position of Israel’s right-wing government is at issue. The accusation is almost always “anti-Semitism,” but rarely has that charge proven as empty as in Hagel’s case. Leading the assault have been Pavlovian attack dogs like William Kristol and The Weekly Standard, Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, ex–AIPAC flack Josh Block, the ADL’s Abe Foxman, Bret Stephens at The Wall Street Journal, and convicted criminal and former Reagan and Bush II official Elliott Abrams, now respectably ensconced at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The allegation rests in significant measure on a 2008 quote in which Hagel—whom the interviewer, author and former US diplomat Aaron David Miller termed “a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values”—criticized the use of political intimidation by the “Jewish lobby,” an infelicitous phrase he accidentally used to describe AIPAC. Hagel later said he misspoke and had meant to refer to the “Israel lobby,” just as he did elsewhere in Miller’s interview. It’s an easy mistake to make, since the “Israel lobby” is pretty darn Jewish. (Dick Cheney, for instance, has made the same error.) As it happens, Hagel is a better friend to Israel than the Likud acolytes and apologists who make up what journalists mistakenly term the “pro-Israel lobby”; for starters, he is willing to tell its leaders the truth. Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general and adviser on US affairs to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, wrote recently that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel’s military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel’s security issues and predicaments,” adding that Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite. In fact, if I were him I would lodge a complaint with the Anti-Defamation League, asking their assistance and support for being unfairly called an anti-Semite.”
What these hysterics may actually indicate is a genuine fear on the part of the neocons and conservative professional Jews that they are about to be exposed as generals without armies, demanding fealty to policies opposed by the vast majority of American Jews for whom they profess to speak. How marvelous, then, that Barack Obama finally decided there was one time he’d rather fight than switch.
Our blogger Phyllis Bennis asks, “Will Chuck Hagel's Appointment Actually Help the Anti-War Left?”