A couple years ago Scott McConnell at the American Conservative told me how impressed he was by Chuck Hagel, that he mixed fine insight with a flat manner. More recently, David Bromwich told me of how he had sat up straight 8 years ago when he heard the Nebraska senator on NPR speaking out for the principle of keeping families together and returning Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. Well, last night I heard Hagel speak, at the Israel Policy Forum, and I now have religion. This guy is truly, errrr, presidential; and word is he's going to be Obama's Def Sec before too long. The speech was extremely subtle, almost flat, but it was filled with messages.
"It was 40 years ago today, December 4, 1968, that I returned from a 12 month tour of Vietnam," Hagel began, and "those of you who have served... you remember those kinds of dates." I cannot think of a more effective opening, especially to a wealthy Jewish crowd.
Hagel moved to another landmark date. June 1967, boot camp outside El Paso, Texas. He was 20 years old and it was the first time he'd been outside Nebraska in his life. The drill sergeants were telling the soldiers that they didn’t know where they were going, to Vietnam or the Middle East, and Hagel remembered the guys sitting around wondering what the hell our interest was in the Middle East. "It was OK to send American troops to Vietnam, but not to the Middle East," Hagel said with a fine stroke of irony.
Of course it was a subtle reminder of an American interest that is not congruent with Israel's, indeed a reminder of the reason for the existence of the Israel lobby: Israel's supporters don’t trust Americans unless we bribe them.
The heart of Hagel's speech was about Obama's commitment to the two-state solution, and not later but sooner.
While he can't speak for them, Hagel said, he's talked directly for long periods with Obama (presumably on their trip to the Middle East). And to Biden too.
"The Middle East is as central to what they want to accomplish as any one thing, and why is that? Yes it's a sense of justice. They also understand that unless we bring this Israeli Palestinian issue to some higher ground, and unless we are able to break through the fog that has surrounded, dominated, and consumed the effort that all Presidents have made since 1948, and leaders of the world have made, that continues to elude us, unless we break through that, then we will continue to see a more dangerous, complicated world. It is clearly in the interest of the United States and clearly in the interest of the Middle East, and the world that this issue be brought to a higher level of confidence and trust and move to a different plateau of finally try to solve the problem in a relevant and realistic way."
That means the 2 state solution, he said. Almost everyone agrees on that solution. The leaders of the free world, the Palestinian Authority, Russia, China, the P5+1 [I had to look that up], NATO, and the Arab world. "Why can't we get there?" It requires constant focus, day in and day out, with a presidential envoy on the ground.
The solution won't be perfect. But if we don't make progress, the risk is that the problems will get so much bigger, and overpowering, that no nation, and no set of nations will be able to deal with them. Every world leader he talks to holds this view.
"I'm not an expert on anything, but I do listen, I do observe, and I'm somewhat informed." He has talked with all the leaders in the region. "They always take you right back to the same issue. They take you back to this issue... This issue has to be dealt with." Fixing it is not going to solve everything. "But that one issue shapes almost every other issue..." in the Middle East. It dominates relationships, it dominates people "who want different kinds of relationships" -- a reference to moderate Arabs.
I thought a lot of what Hagel was saying was about the Israel lobby. The reference to the fog that has surrounded presidents since 1948, and world leaders too--that was the Jewish ability to get partition, and Israeli power to get territory since then. And Hagel warned the Israel lobby that times are changing. Global relationships are changing by the day. Centers of influence are changing, he said. The strategic dynamic is changing "at a rate we've never seen." And: "This is a very precious historical moment."
I.e., get behind this now, or you'll lose the Jewish state.
Hagel told the room he was Catholic, but said that no one faith has a corner on wisdom.
"Most of you in this room have been to many places in the world... All people love their children and their families and want a better world. And that has led me to one fundamental observation that somehow eludes us in this great dilemma in the Middle East, and that is the human condition. The human condition has dictated every event in the history of man, and it will always will. When men are locked in cycles of despair... it will not result in a better world, or a safer world, or a more just world..What is it that drives them, these extremists and terrorists?...It is about the human condition. And when we do not deal with the human condition, it will deal with us.... It will dominate all of us."
He was talking about human suffering, and the need for American Jews to wake up to the basic injustice of the Palestinians’ lives. Chuck Hagel gets it.