Knowing Chuck Hagel from His Supporters and His Opponents
A little over a week ago, the Obama administration floated the name of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense. Obviously, his name was publicly put out to give the administration forewarning of what, if any, opposition they might receive to the possibility. It would be but a matter of days before both conservatives and centrist Democrats made known their serious opposition to Hagel’s appointment to such a major post.
Opposition began with a searing column by Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. Stephens noted that like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Hagel is among those who rant about the undue influence of what Hagel called “the Jewish lobby,” which he went on to say “intimidates a lot of people up here.” As Stephens writes, the word “intimidates” has the effect of ascribing “to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent; and because it suggests that legislators who adopt positions friendly to that lobby are doing so not from political conviction but out of personal fear.”
Hagel also made other similar remarks that indicated the nature of how he thinks. He told Aaron David Miller in 2006 “I’m a United States Senator, not an Israeli Senator” as if consideration of the needs of our greatest ally in the Middle East is somehow contrary to his oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. Stephens writes:
Read these staccato utterances again to better appreciate their insipid and insinuating qualities, all combining to cast the usual slur on Jewish-Americans: Dual loyalty. Nobody questions Mr. Hagel’s loyalty. He is only making those assertions to question the loyalty of others.
Still, Mr. Hagel managed to say “I support Israel.” This is the sort of thing one often hears from people who treat Israel as the Mideast equivalent of a neighborhood drunk who, for his own good, needs to be put in the clink to sober him up.
On other issues pertinent to the Middle East, Hagel took positions contrary to the interests of our own country. In 2006 he called Israel’s war against Hezbollah “the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon.” He opposed calling Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and urged Obama to support “direct, unconditional” talks with Iran. In 2009 he urged direct talks as well with Hamas. Then, with John Kerry, he wrote an op-ed in 2008 urging talks with Syria -- a double-standard second to none. For these rogue states: no preconditions; for Israel: toughness and opposition.
Bret Stephens concludes by writing that if Obama appoints Hagel, it would serve to confirm his argument that for those who wish to see the truth, “Mr. Obama is not a friend of Israel.”
Some, like Mayor Ed Koch, who supported Obama and believed the president's assurances that he is a supporter of Israel, immediately came out in opposition to a potential Hagel appointment. Speaking to The Algemeiner newspaper, Koch said:
“I believe it would be a terrible appointment,” he said, “and so do apparently most of the Jewish leaders who have expressed themselves.”
Explaining his opposition to the appointment, which is looking increasingly likely to materialize, Koch said that it would lead Arab states to believe that President Obama was seeking to create distance between his administration and Israel.
“Such an appointment would give great comfort to the Arab world that would think that President Obama is seeking to put space between Israel and his administration,” Koch said, “I hope he doesn’t go forward with that appointment.”
Koch once again was a lonely voice among Democrats, most of whom have chosen to remain silent.
Writing at The Daily Beast, Eli Lake was told by an anonymous pro-Israel advocate on the hill that “The pro-Israel community will view the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel in an extremely negative light. His record is unique in its animus towards Israel.” And from Josh Block, formerly AIPAC’s communications director and now CEO of The Israel Project,
While in the Senate, Hagel voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, refused to call on the E.U. to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group, and consistently voted against sanctions on Iran for their illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. It is a matter of fact that his record on these issues puts him well outside the mainstream Democratic and Republican consensus.
Block’s point is most important. Hagel’s position -- and this cannot be stressed too much -- is way out of line with sensible mainstream views on the nature of the Iranian regime, terrorism, and how the United States must deal with the problem. Therefore, it is important to look at who is supporting Hagel, and their reasons for doing so. Sometimes, the reasons why others support Hagel are most revealing.
First, let us turn to the would-be pro-Israel journalist Peter Beinart, who is most well-known for harsh criticism of Israel’s defense policies, of the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and for his taking positions that are an anathema to most of the Israeli electorate. Unlike Stephens, Caroline Glick, Josh Block and Ed Koch, all of whom make a strong case against a Hagel appointment, Beinart is completely in favor of it.
Beinart, who in the past favored the Cold War liberalism and tough policies of the Truman administration, now faults Truman for taking the US on the road to the war in Vietnam, and contrasts Dwight Eisenhower favorably with Truman, for supposedly favoring less defense spending and criticizing the “military-industrial complex.” Hagel, he argues, would move us away from those who followed Truman, like George W. Bush, who got us into war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and moved us closer- -- according to Beinart -- to war with Iran. He writes:
Hagel’s assumption is the same: that since economic strength forms the foundation of national security, slashing the Pentagon budget, and thus reducing the debt, may actually make America stronger. “The Defense Department,” Hagel has argued, “has been bloated” and must “be pared down.” Hawks warn that cutting defense will make America more vulnerable to foreign threats. But Hagel, like Eisenhower, understands that a nation cannot meaningfully define its threats without first defining its interests. That means determining which corners of the globe really matter to the United States, and which don’t, and then figuring out how much defense spending you need. “We have not had any real strategic thinking in this country for years and years and years—strategic thinking in what are our interests,” Hagel told the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s right, and just asking the question would be a big shift from the Bush era.
Indeed, he argues that had Hagel been in Obama’s first administration, the president might not have fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and agreed to a surge which, temporarily at least, forced the terrorists to retreat:
Had Hagel been around to “speak for those ghosts [of Vietnam],” I’m not sure the Obama administration would have sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a “surge” that, as Bob Woodward has shown, few in the White House believed could succeed. Hagel has also been more reluctant than Obama to support, even hypothetically, military action against Iran. Like Eisenhower, who scorned the idea that any war, once unleashed, could be controlled, Hagel reviles the bloodless, almost casual, way in which commentators discuss “air strikes” against Iran. Hagel doesn’t talk about air strikes; he talks about war.
To put it differently, Beinart favors Hagel because he sees him as someone like himself: a former hawk who now favors any option based on peace, even if it means that our opponents would advance and make the world a less safe place.
Another major defender of Hagel is none other than Andrew Sullivan, Beinart’s colleague at Newsweek/The Daily Beast. To Sullivan, serious opponents are only making “vile insinuations” that come from “the Greater Israel Lobby” that wants only to “to kill a nomination because a US Senator actually believe his job is to care first about the security and interests of the US, not Greater Israel; the reflexive equation of opposition to the Netanyahu administration or the settlements or the Gaza wars with pure bigotry." He concludes his vitriolic screed with these words:
But for utopian fanatics, if casually calling honorable public servants anti-Semites helps them retain their dream of a Greater Israel, so be it. Which is why the president, if indeed he is contemplating an appointment for the Nebraska Republican, should not listen to the AIPAC thugs. He should what is right for this country, and not any other’s.
Rather than even try to answer the arguments of people like Josh Block who cite chapter and verse of Hagel’s anti-mainstream positions, he uses ad hominem words such as “AIPAC thugs” and claims Hagel’s opponents are guilty of dual loyalty -- to Israel, and perhaps not even to the United States at all. In Sullivan’s eyes, Hagel’s opponents want only a “Greater Israel” and war with Iran, since they are “utopian fanatics.” Does Sullivan really think the foolish belief that the tyrants of Syria, Iran, and the Islamists of Hezbollah and Hamas (whom Hagel seems to think are open to reason) is a valid and correct view? Is he also not worried at all about what Iran might do with a nuclear weapon?
Finally, Hagel’s other most recent supporter is the liberal/leftist journalist John B. Judis, writing today at The New Republic. Judis, echoing Hagel and his supporters, sees the opposition coming exclusively from what he obviously sees as nefarious neo-conservative and Jewish interests. He writes:
The stories of Hagel’s looming nomination have aroused intense opposition–but almost exclusively from individuals and organizations that back Israel’s right-wing government and find Hagel’s views on Israel repellent.
These critics include the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is funded by gambling mogul and greater-Israel proponent Sheldon Adelson; the Zionist Organization of America, which also opposes a two-state solution; and a sundry collection of fellow travellers, (sic) including the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. “Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy,” one Republican aide told The Weekly Standard. “This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.”
Unlike Josh Block, who correctly shows that Hagel is out of the mainstream (Block is a centrist Democrat). Judis writes that Hagel’s foreign policy views, “including his positions on Israel and its American lobby, are, if anything, a reason to support rather than oppose his nomination.”
Note first his description of AIPAC as an Israeli lobby, rather than a group made up of Americans, including many Democrats, who support a strong Israel and an American-Israeli friendship. It is NOT an “Israeli lobby.” Note also his concentration on Adelson and the fringe ZOA, rather than mainstream Zionists, and his description of those who disagree with him as “fellow travelers” of Israel -- a term that somehow impugns their criticism.
Judis then notes that Hagel asked for a seat on a non-existent “Foreign Policy Committee,” by which he probably means the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Judis likes Hagel’s preference for diplomacy, rather than war, and praises him for turning against the war in Iraq and refusing to favor “a phantom victory by escalation.” If Judis is referring to the surge, I hope that he is aware that it worked, and turned the tide. Referring to him as a “principled realist” akin to Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, he argues that Hagel favors the U.S. knowing “the limits of its power to unilaterally effect (sic) events, whether in Syria or Iran.”
Of course, Judis also praises Hagel for favoring the flawed “peace process” in the Middle East, as well as his belief that the US should engage in direct talks with Iran. In other words, Judis’s reasons for favoring Hagel would lead to more disasters for the U.S. in the world. He praises Hagel for seeking not the ouster of Hamas, but that they modify their behavior. He agrees with Hagel that the would-be “moderate elements” in Hamas should prevail, and that the US should talk to them and “test its behavior.” What, I ask, are the moderate elements in a group whose raison d’etre is to destroy Israel and create an Islamic state in its place? No wonder he agrees with those who call for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
Then Judis presents his worst argument -- one that is almost impossible to believe:
When America has refused to talk to adversaries, or to adversaries of its allies, it has courted disaster. That was certainly the case with the American decision not to recognize China after the Chinese revolution. If the United States had had relations with China in 1950, the Korean War might not have occurred, or might have been much shorter.
As one of my friends asked when he called this to my attention, “What is John Judis smoking?”
Is Judis implying that had we recognized Communist China in 1950, Kim Il-Sung would not have invaded North Korea? He obviously does not know, or has forgotten, that we had diplomatic relations with Stalin’s Soviet Union. And Stalin gave Kim the go-ahead to invade North Korea, having previously refused his requests to do so. After Dean Acheson had famously testified that North Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter, Stalin believed that the Communist bloc would face no opposition to a North Korean unification of Korea by force, and that he would be able to easily score a major victory for world Communism.
Finally, Judis is so sure of AIPAC’s power that he believes many in Congress vote for support to Israel because they are fearful of it, and not because of conviction. Evidently, he is not aware of the many polls that show overwhelming US support for Israel among our citizens, and that members of Congress reflect their constituents' views. Moreover, many of Israel’s strongest supporters are Christians, and many Jews, particularly in New York and Florida, are the most critical of Israel and the least supportive of it. Yet he refers to AIPAC as a “Jewish organization.”
One can know a lot about Hagel’s worthiness by looking at the views of those who support him, and those who oppose him. Fortunately, the argument of writers like Beinart, Sullivan and Judis, who want to argue that only hard-line neo-cons oppose Hagel’s appointment, was torn apart when The Washington Post, a liberal establishment paper, editorially joined the opponents of a Hagel appointment. The editors wrote:
FORMER SENATOR Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama is reportedly considering for defense secretary, is a Republican who would offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team. He would not, however, move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees. On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him….
Mr. Hagel was similarly isolated in his views about Iran during his time in the Senate. He repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior. The Obama administration offered diplomacy but has turned to tough sanctions as the only way to compel Iran to negotiate seriously.
Mr. Obama has said that his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that containment is not an option. Mr. Hagel has taken a different view, writing in a 2008 book that “the genie of nuclear weapons is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.” The former senator from Nebraska signed on to an op-edin The Post this September that endorsed “keeping all options on the table” for stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.
We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. …
Mr. Hagel is an honorable man who served the country with distinction as a soldier in Vietnam and who was respected by his fellow senators. But Mr. Obama could make a better choice for defense secretary.
Now, the opposition to Hagel is bi-partisan, and those supporting his appointment with spurious arguments reflect only their own preference for being tough only with Israel and for not wanting to assert American power against our own very real enemies abroad.