The wrong way to defend Chuck Hagel from neoconservative smears

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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Sen. Hagel

The neoconservative smear-peddlers are working overtime to scuttle the not yet confirmed or announced appointment of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to the post of Defense Secretary. In response, liberals, Democrats and liberal Zionists (those groups overlap) have taken to defending Hagel from the smears.

But they’re doing it all wrong. Instead of defending Hagel on the slightly unorthodox positions he’s taken on the Israel lobby, Iran and Hamas, these groups have set out to prove he’s just as “pro-Israel” as anyone else. The message they’re sending is: Hagel loves Israel just like Joe Lieberman loves Israel. But is that really the kind of debate we should be having in Washington? (It should also be noted that the fact that Hagel’s potential nomination has caused such a ruckus shows how impoverished the Washington discourse on foreign policy is. Hagel is a member of the U.S. elite, and is a military man. He voted for the Iraq War. He is a Republican. But his frank talk on some issues relating to Israel have caused people to go mad.)

As the neoconservative campaign against Hagel heated up, the liberal Zionist, self-professed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street came out with a counter-salvo. Hagel has “been a staunch friend of the State of Israel and a trusted ally in the Senate, speaking out on behalf of America’s commitment to Israel’s security,” the group notes. Similarly, a Think Progress blog post was published with the headline, “Chuck Hagel’s Pro-Israel Record.” The post noted that Hagel has repeatedly called Israel a “close ally” and that he “supported legislation opposing terror groups that reject the two-state solution.” Additionally, Think Progress further noted that “Hagel expressed concern about what Egypt’s revolution would mean for Israel’s security.” The liberal blog is a project of the Obama-connected Center for American Progress.

And the most prominent effort to defend Hagel from the smears has come from a memo circulating in Washington from friends of the former senator. The memo is all about how much Hagel loves Israel. One quote included is from a book Hagel wrote in which he said: “A comprehensive solution should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, which must be assured.” It’s true, as these friends of Hagel say, that all of these positions put Hagel squarely in the mainstream of the Washington debate over Israel–meaning having a commitment to ensuring Israeli hegemony and refusing to pressure the state over any illegal behavior.

But it is not on these positions that Hagel is being attacked. Hagel is being smeared as an anti-Semite because he used the term “Jewish lobby” and is frank about the Israel lobby, because he has voiced skepticism about sanctions and the use of force on Iran (though he has also voted for sanctions on Iran) and because he has said the U.S. should engage Hamas. Neoconservative writer and Iraq War-pusher Bill Kristol sums his case up here.

However, very little of the defense Hagel’s friends have put up are related to these slightly unorthodox foreign policy positions. It’s all couched in Hagel’s devotion to an occupying state. But if we’re ever to break out of the stale and failed policy on the Middle East the U.S. has pursued for the past few decades, people should be defending these positions. Here’s some of what Hagel has said that should be shouted from the rooftops–because they’re rational positions that could put the U.S. on a better path to a sane policy towards Israel:

-Hagel pushed for a ceasefire during the 2006 Israeli assault on Lebanon. “How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend — the country and people of Lebanon — is going to enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East?” said Hagel. (The pro-Hagel memo, while mentioning the Lebanon issue, did not include the quote that Israel was engaging in the “systematic destruction of an American friend, and also places Hagel’s opposition to the war on Lebanon as in line with Israeli opinion. You can’t have an anti-war position without aligning it with an Israeli one, it seems.)

-Hagel is frank about the Israel lobby. In an interview with Aaron David Miller, Hagel said: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” (The term “Jewish lobby” is sloppy, in my eyes, although there are Jewish groups involved in the Israel lobby as a whole.) But Hagel’s larger point about the Israel lobby intimidating people is spot-on. Yet none of the defenders of Hagel have acknowledged the very plain fact that there is an Israel lobby that holds sway and influence over Washington.

-Hagel has pushed for a more open policy towards Hamas. As Reuters notes, “after leaving office, Hagel urged Obama to open talks with Hamas.”

There’s more where those came from. But these statements, which, to me, say that Hagel is someone who looks at the Middle East with a clear mind, are not being defended. They should be if we’re interested in busting open the cloistered debate in the halls of power.

It is analogous to the defenders of President Obama’s Israel record. During the election, groups like the National Jewish Democratic Council defended Obama from smears that he was “anti-Israel” by noting Obama is more pro-Israel than the neoconservative right. That strategy contributed to the debate over Israel being pushed further to the right during the election season. Now, the defenders of Hagel are not pointing out his rational positions on the Middle East. Instead, they’re ignoring those and marshaling Hagel’s mainstream positions that are fully in line with, say, Lindsey Graham.

I understand that this is how Think Progress and other friends of Hagel play the game. They’re fully ensconced within the Washington bubble, where any hint of straying from the line on Israel is to be shunned. But it’s not a very effective way to begin to shift U.S. policy on Israel. And if Hagel is nominated, the tenor of the debate will force him to say loudly and clearly that he is “pro-Israel.” 


About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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22 Responses

  1. amigo
    December 20, 2012, 5:47 pm

    Don,t shoot until you see the white of their eyes.

    Then call all hands on deck.

  2. MRW
    December 20, 2012, 5:50 pm

    Right, Alex. But Andrew Sullivan nails it this AM:

    • ToivoS
      December 20, 2012, 8:41 pm

      Damn mrw those are some powerful words coming from Sullivan. To think that just 10 years back he was advocating using nuclear weapons against Arabs and calling anti-Iraq War activists traitors (I took that very personnaly) is now talking like this. I will never trust him, but if the neocons and failed right wing policies are producing a backlash this intense, I will have to sign on to his rhetoric at least.

      • MRW
        January 1, 2013, 3:37 pm

        I’m with you, ToivoS. He called me a traitor, or words to that effect, in an email 10 years ago just before the war started. Last one I ever had from him.

  3. Les
    December 20, 2012, 6:53 pm

    force him to say loudly and clearly that he is “pro-Israel.”

    and pro-ethnic cleansing

  4. ToivoS
    December 20, 2012, 7:09 pm

    Alex if your goal is to get Hagel nominated as SOD then those very tactics you criticize are the only ones practically possible. On the other hand, if your goal is to educate the American people and hopefully put pressure on Washington to change its policies, then maybe what you suggest would be best. However, in the short time Hagel would never be nominated.

    As disagreeable and dishonest as it feels to me, I support the approach of getting Hagel nominated. This will require repeated promises of his fealty to Israel. What is important, is that he has a history for some independent thought when it comes to Iran, Hamas and Israel. This is what the Lobby is objecting to. They are demanding 100% support for the right wing Israeli government. Tactically, if they are defeated on this absolute demand, it will weaken in the longer term their hammer lock on Congress. It is not that often that AIPAC puts itself publicly on the line is this way — they are creating an opportunity for us to really test their power. If they lose, they lose big. If they win, they will have embittered many patriotic Americans against them. I can’t complain about either outcome, but I would prefer to see them lose big.

    I agree with those that think Hagel is, for the most part, part of the imperial mind set that rules Washington. But simply getting him nominated at this point would be a tiny step for a more enlightened American foreign policy.

  5. Scott
    December 20, 2012, 7:21 pm

    Well, I’m not at all sure it’s the wrong way if you’re trying to appeal to an audience–Senators, and their aides– who are reflexively at least somewhat pro-Israel, (though not pro-Likud) , who might not want a war with Iran, but who certainly don’t want to create a big controversy for themselves over Israel. After all, it’s not Hagel’s job to create a controversy over Israel. This stuff gives them a security blanket, a reason to justify their vote for Hagel as not controversial, or anti-Israel–and why shouldn’t it be, since it’s not that Hagel is really Noam Chomsky or something. He’s a fairly standard politician, with more courage than most. Hagel is not being portrayed as in favor of the settlements, or opposed to a viable Palestinian state (not that this matters for sec-Def.). Anyway, I think it’s quite effective–sad that it should be necessary, but politics the art of the possible.

  6. Citizen
    December 20, 2012, 7:36 pm

    Hagel issue is on the evening cable channel news now. Fox quoted Hagel saying he was a US Senator, not a Israeli senator. Mentioned fast that Hagel wanted to talk with Iran and Jewish groups don’t like Hagel. MSNBC Chris Matthews, gonna talk about the Hagel issue shortly–he already said he thinks Hagel would be a great choice. No hemming or hawing at all. It’s 730PM, Thursday, today.

  7. American
    December 20, 2012, 9:59 pm

    This is America. This isn’t Israel.

  8. piotr
    December 20, 2012, 10:15 pm

    “That strategy contributed to the debate over Israel being pushed further to the right …”

    I would observe that this is a very wide phenomenon, the one of “wedge issues”. We have party A (often, but not always a formal political party) and party B playing roles “reasonable” and “resolute” on issue X. When A concede a point for the sake of proving how reasonable they are, the resolute B moves the goal further, and conversely, if A insists on a point, then B moves its goal just a little bit further.

    Illustration: if A insists on “reproductive freedom to women” then B will concentrate on “partial birth abortions”. If A concedes that one has to be “tough on crime”, B will insist on life without parole for robbing a slice of pizza, and if A concedes that death penalty may be a good idea, B will want swift and wide application (on that point B have been very successful in Texas, Virginia and most of all, Iran). While in some countries incarceration cannot exceed 25 years to avoid unusual and cruel penalties, in USA it is moderate to advocate life sentences without parole that are performed in inhumane “supermax prisons”. When can we decide that the state is sufficiently cruel if we cannot admit that the state is cruel? The issue of rights of the accused and prisoners in USA is as hard to tackle as the issue of Israel and Palestine, and for similar reasons.

    Once we admit that this is a paramount dynamic of political life, namely that the wedge issues positions are inherently fluid we can start deciphering what they mean. What is “love for Israel”? A tacit admission that we run out of rational argument to support current actions of Israel so we must appeal to sentiments? Why earlier ceasefires would be in ANY way detrimental to Israel, especially with the benefit of the hindsight? What goals of GoI that were achieved in Cast Lead and 2006 war would not be achieved if there was a ceasefire after 2 weeks of the conflict rather than a full month? If none, does the extra two weeks of mayhem count for absolutely nothing? What is exactly the though crime committed by a call for ceasefire?

    In the dynamic of reasonable/resolute, this is simply a marker that is accidentally selected as a “dare wedge”, and as it is usual in such cases, with no inherent justification. A “dare wedge” is a position that is tempting to oppose, being nonsensical, but very easy to defend (and attack the opposition). The logic is typically that we first establish who are the bad ones, and who are the good ones. If X could benefit the bad ones, it reveals a twisted reprehensible attitude. If you oppose to inhuman conditions in supermax prisons you ignore the suffering of the innocent crime victims etc.

  9. David Doppler
    December 20, 2012, 10:34 pm

    I agree, Alex. This is about Hagel’s refusal to pledge allegiance to AIPAC on all their stupid letters. Let’s review all their stupid letters which most Congress persons sign, and discuss whether it isn’t time to insist on a Congress full of Hagels, each evaluating every foreign policy and Middle East issue from a realist perspective, in terms of what’s best for the United States. Incidentally, becoming more like a realist US would greatly improve Israel’s long term survival prospects, but that perspective just flows naturally from adopting and living by American values.

  10. HPH
    December 21, 2012, 12:40 am

    Here is a URL to a White House petition that supports Chuck Hagel:

    I received the request from Justin Raimondo at

    Here is the text: We petition the Obama administration to:
    Nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense — and fight for his nomination

    In response to the news that former Sen. Hagel is a frontrunner for SecDef, a vicious smear campaign has been launched that seeks to impugn his character. While the Washington elite is committed to perpetual war, and considers American soldiers to be pawns to be moved around on the global chessboard, Hagel understands what war really means — he would be the first SecDef with actual battleground experience since Caspar Weinberger. Mr. President, please ignore the laptop bombardiers and nominate a true American patriot, who puts America and American interests first — and put the full weight of your enormous prestige behind him. You won’t regret it.

  11. Kathleen
    December 21, 2012, 12:43 am

    Alex such great points. Hagel should not have to hide or cover up that he has made reasonable statements about the Israeli Palestinian conflict and Iran based on facts. I actually do believe Hagel is a better friend to Israel for doing so. Like telling a friend they have an addiction issue and that they are self destructing and likely to take a lot of people down with them. Let’s hope Obama has the will to select Hagel and stand by him through this storm

  12. DICKERSON3870
    December 21, 2012, 1:54 am

    RE: “The neoconservative smear-peddlers are working overtime to scuttle the not yet confirmed or announced appointment of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to the post of Defense Secretary.” ~ Alex Kane

    MY COMMENT: It’s beginning to resemble the Salem Witch Trials, but with the the Puritans replaced by the Neocons!

    FILM: The Crucible, 1996 PG-13, 2hr 3m
    Playwright Arthur Miller’s parable of the 1950s anti-communist crusade (thinly veiled here as the Salem, Mass., witch trials of 1692) receives lush treatment in this Oscar-nominated film adaptation from director Nicholas Hytner. After being spurned by her married lover (Daniel Day-Lewis), young Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) stirs up a frenzy of hysteria and fear with accusations of witchcraft. Joan Allen earned an Oscar nod for her role. [SCREENPLAY BY ARTHUR MILLER]
    Netflix formats: DVD and streaming
    • Netflix listing –
    • Internet Movie Database –
    The Crucible Trailer (1996) [VIDEO, 02:30] –
    • Scenes from The Crucible [VIDEO, 02:50] –

    ● HIS EXCELLENCY DANFORTH: “A person is either with this court or against it. There be no road in between. This is a new time; a precise time. We live no longer in the dusky afternoon (pause) when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the good folk and the evil are entirely separate.”
    ● HIS EXCELLENCY DANFORTH: “No uncorrupted man may fear this court.”

    ● HALE: “Excellency, a moment. I think this goes to the heart of the matter.” [And then Hale argues that farmer Proctor should have a lawyer to present his contention in defense of his wife.]
    ● HIS EXCELLENCY DANFORT: “In an ordinary crime, witnesses are called to prove quilt or innocence.
    But witchcraft is an invisible crime. Therefore, who may witness it?
    The witch, of course. And the victim. Now we cannot expect the witch to accuse herself, can we? Therefore, we may only rely upon her victims, and the children certainly testify. Therefore, what is left for a lawyer to bring out?

  13. ToivoS
    December 21, 2012, 2:30 am

    Dailykos is opposed to Hagel and they have launched a petition for Democrats to let Obama know that they do not support Hagel. There seems to be some pushback to this petition in the comments section.

    Anyway if you support Hagel go here to show your support:

    • Citizen
      December 21, 2012, 3:42 am


    • HPH
      December 21, 2012, 9:52 am

      The initial negative response at Dailykos was the fact the Chuck Hagel is a Republican. The argument was that the nomination of a Republican furthers the notion that only Republicans can be trusted for defense. I didn’t see anything negative about Chuck Hagel as a person. I hadn’t noticed any use of the argument that he wasn’t a strong supporter of Israel, but I have been wondering if it is an underlying, unstated reason.

      • ToivoS
        December 21, 2012, 5:23 pm

        When Hagel’s name was mentioned my initial reaction was the same as kos. What changed my mind was the necon attack and charges of antisemitism. The lobby has made Israel the issue. This makes backing Hagel politically important. I suppose that kos’s reaction is sincere. They quite clearly do not care too much about the IP issue — my guess is that they see as “divisive” in the Democratic Party and oppose allowing the debate for that reason.

  14. Donald
    December 21, 2012, 10:40 am

    I keep expecting someone to just say it–“So-and-so isn’t an anti-semite. He hates Arabs.” Not about Hagel, but about someone in this position.

    I really did see something close to that many years ago, from someone who went to Iraqi Kurdistan and was obviously pleased to discover that the Kurds he met liked Jews and weren’t so fond of Arabs–in fact he lovingly quotes the sort of typical bigoted stupid remarks about Arabs that an American would normally cite as evidence of Arab anti-semitism if these comments were made by an Arab about Jews.


  15. Robert Naiman
    December 22, 2012, 8:03 am

    You’ve totally missed the boat here, Alex. J Street and Think Progress are doing what they are doing because *they are trying to win.* The Washington playing field is dominated by AIPAC – is this news? Are you faulting J Street and Think Progress for trying to win? If so, isn’t this raising the flag of the “loser left” – leftists who can only be happy if the left is losing, and have no interest in ever trying to win anything? This is a rare opportunity to have a chance at beating AIPAC – not a big chance, but a non-zero chance. Isn’t that where focus should lie, not on beating the ideological purity drums of the loser left?

    If there’s anyone here who actually cares about winning, there is a petition at MoveOn you should sign. Note that there’s nothing in the petition about being “pro-Israel” – it’s all about getting out of Afghanistan, preventing war with Iran, and cutting the Pentagon budget.

    Back Obama in Tapping Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense

  16. watzal
    December 25, 2012, 12:02 pm

    I do agree with Alex Kane that the „Israel Lobby“ may „kill“ Chuck Hagel nomination by stigmatizing him as an „anti-Semite“. This is the most ridiculous allegation I’ve heard of. If the lobby gets away with it, it’s going to show to the public where the real power rests in the U. S. concerning foreign policy towards the Middle East. The U. S. government should register the “Israel Lobby” as a “foreign agent” and take away all the tax privileges. The “Israel Lobby” are different from the “Gun Lobby”, the “Tobacco Lobby” and all sorts of domestic lobbies who try to influence U. S. decision making processes.
    My arguments were similar than those of Kane.

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