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.” 


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