If, as widely expected, US President Barack Obama later this week nominates
Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state and former senator Chuck Hagel as
secretary of defense, then those already worrying about US-Israeli ties under a
second Obama term will have even more to worry about.
Less because of
Kerry, even though he is considered a man of independent ideas on the Middle
East who feels – thanks to his many years in the Senate working on foreign
policy – that he knows perhaps better than Israelis themselves what is good for
them, and more because of Hagel.
Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, is a
Republican. But he is what some described as a Brent Scowcroft Republican, a
so-called “country club” Republican not endowed with the pro-Israel reflexes
that so many officeholders in the Republican party have come to possess since
the days of Ronald Reagan.
Rather, Hagel is a Republican with a
problematic voting record on Israel.
One sign that worries about Hagel
may be well-founded is that one of those backing his appointment is Stephen
Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of a book bashing both Israel and AIPAC,
The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
In his blog Friday on the Foreign
Policy website, Walt said appointing Hagel would be a perfect way for “Obama to
pay back [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu for all the ‘cooperation’ Obama
received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s]
transparent attempt to tip the scale for [Republican presidential candidate
Mitt] Romney last fall.”
In his piece listing the “top five reasons”
Obama should pick Hagel, Walt wrote on his blog, “Unlike almost all of his
former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he hasn’t been a complete doormat for the
Israel lobby. In the summer of 2006, for example, he incurred the lobby’s wrath
by calling for a joint cease-fire during Israel’s war with
Walt wrote that Hagel has been “outspoken in calling for the
United States to be more evenhanded in its handling of the peace process, and
he’s generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against
“Generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force
against Iran” might be an understatement.
In his 2008 book, America: Our
Next Chapter, quoted Friday on the Foreign Policy website, Hagel wrote of Iran,
“Isolating nations is risky. It turns them inward, and makes their citizens
susceptible to the most demagogic fear-mongering.”
“Distasteful as we may find that country’s rulers, the
absence of any formal governmental relations with Iran ensures that we will
continue to conduct this delicate international relationship through the press
and speeches, as well as through surrogates and third parties, on issues of
vital strategic importance to our national interests. Such a course can only
result in diplomatic blind spots that will lead to misunderstandings,
miscalculation and, ultimately, conflict.”
In that book, he also raises
the idea of living with a nuclear Iran, an idea Obama has on many occasions
“The genie of nuclear armaments is already out of the
bottle, no matter what Iran does,” he wrote.
“In this imperfect world,
sovereign nation-states possessing nuclear weapons capability (as opposed to
stateless terrorist groups) will often respond with some degree of responsible,
or at least sane, behavior. These governments, however hostile they may be
toward us, have some appreciation of the horrific results of a nuclear war and
the consequences they would suffer.”
In a May interview with Foreign
Policy’s Josh Rogin, Hagel said, “The two options – attack Iran or live with a
nuclear-armed Iran – may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people
in both Israel and the United States think there’s a ways to go before we get to
those. I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way. I can understand
differences between Obama and the Israeli prime minister, but we have
differences with all our allies.”
In 2001, Hagel was one of two senators
who voted against renewing the Iran-Libya sanctions act, in 2007 he voted
against placing the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps on America’s list of
terrorist organizations and in 2008 he voted against Iran
Other problematic positions taken by Hagel include being one
of only four senators in October 2000 who would not sign a letter of support for
Israel during the second intifada, being only one of 12 senators in 2006 who
refused to sign a letter calling on the EU to place Hezbollah on its terrorist
lists and signing a 2009 letter – after he retired from the Senate – urging
Obama to negotiate with Hamas.
William Kristol of the conservative Weekly
Standard wrote Friday that when Hagel was appointed to an advisory board at the
beginning of Obama’s first term, Ira Forman, Obama’s 2008 campaign’s Jewish
outreach director and former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council,
acknowledged, “If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real
“Well,” Kristol wrote, “secretary of defense is a policy
Kerry, in comparison to Hagel, has a spotless voting record on
Israel. Yet he too is causing some anxiety because of his affiliation with the
Center-Left of the Democratic party, not these days perceived as widely
sympathetic to Israel’s arguments.
Unlike outgoing Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, perhaps burned by experience trying to get the Palestinians and
Israel to negotiate, Kerry – even though he is a long-time senator and chairman
of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee – does not have the experience of
being involved “in the trenches,” and as a result may not understand the limits
of what may be achieved.
The concern among some is that Kerry may come to
the State Department convinced he knows what is best for Israel and set about
“rediscovering the wheel.”
Clinton, who lived through Obama’s setbacks in
the Middle East, was mellowed – perhaps jaded – to some extent by those
setbacks, and adjusted her expectations accordingly. This learning curve will
start anew with Kerry.
While Kerry – who ran unsuccessfully for president
in 2004 – always voted for Israel in the Senate, he never was perceived as a
leader on pro-Israel issues. He also broke with conventional wisdom at times,
leading him – for instance – to place a lot of time and energy during the end of
the Bush administration and the early days of Obama’s first term trying to
engage with Syria.
Of the three names mooted for the job of secretary of
state a few weeks ago – Kerry, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and National
Security Adviser Tom Donilon – Israel, according to a senior diplomatic source,
was rooting for Donilon, someone considered as having a good rapport with the
Prime Minister’s Office and a good and sympathetic understating of Israel’s
position and concerns.
For better or worse, forget Donilon. Jerusalem –
it seems – is going to have to get used to working with Kerry... and, quite
possibly, with Hagel.