Why did President Barack Obama nominate Chuck Hagel for the position of
secretary of defense?
First untenable answer: The former Nebraska senator is the
best possible candidate for the job. Hagel has no experience at any level with a
vast bureaucracy like the Pentagon. He has no special expertise in defense
matters, unless brave service in the Vietnam War qualifies, and never
distinguished himself in this area (or any other) during his 12 years in the
Senate. By all reports his intellect is only middling, and he is reported to
have a quick temper, which resulted in a rapid turnover among his Senate
Second untenable answer: President Obama did not know of Hagel’s
past controversial positions and statements about such highly relevant issues
such as Iran’s nuclear program and Israel. That record has been extensively
combed over in the more than a month since the administration first floated the
Hagel trial balloon. Even the liberal Washington Post editorialized against the
Hagel pick on December 19.
Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s outreach
director and former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, normally an
administration lapdog, expressed grave misgivings about Hagel as early as 2007,
when Obama was mulling a presidential run. In 2009, when Hagel was appointed to
the President’s Intelligence Advisory Committee, Forman said that if he were
being appointed to a policy role, “we’d have real concerns,” which is as close
to criticism of the president as one will ever hear from Forman.
being a regular in recent years on the American Muslim lecture circuit,
lamenting the inordinate power of Israel over American foreign policy, Hagel was
a complete outlier in his 12 years in the Senate on a variety of Middle East
issues. He was consistently one of only a handful of senators who refused to
sign letters of support for Israel. In 2001, he was only of only two senators to
vote against extending the original Iranian sanctions bill, and in 2004, again
one of two to vote against the renewal of the Libya-Iran sanctions
He refused to sign a senatorial letter calling for the EU to
designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and voted against designating
the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. He is on the board
of directors of Deutsche Bank, which is currently being investigated for
assisting Iran in the circumvention of sanctions.
THUS THE only
conceivable explanation for his nomination is that Obama chose him precisely
because he shares Hagel’s views. The nomination, then, at least offers the
benefit of clarification.
The president is also not averse to the
inevitable confirmation battle in the Senate. The nomination of Hagel, said
Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) is very “in your face.” Apparently the
president seeks as confrontational a stance as possible toward congressional
Republicans. His opening offer in the fiscal cliff negotiations – $50 billion in
new stimulus spending and ceding congressional oversight over the debt ceiling
to the president – provoked open laughter from Senate Republican leader Mitch
Equally conciliatory in tone was Obama’s response
to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) when the latter asked what he
would receive in exchange for agreement to $800 million in new tax revenues:
“You get nothing, John, that one’s free for me.”
The president is a
competitive guy. He wants to show Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who is boss,
and express his displeasure over the way Netanyahu went over his head in his
speech to a joint session of Congress last year.
conveys the message loud and clear.
Certainly, Hagel’s supporters are
spoiling for a fight.
Not one has tried to make a case for Chuck Hagel on
his merits. Rather they have defended him by the enemies he has attracted –
supporters of Israel. The usual suspects have lined up for the opportunity to
stick it to Israel: J Street, Peter Beinart, Thomas Friedman, Andrew Sullivan
and the usual flock of “realists” – Stephen Walt, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew
The “realism” of the latter group consists, as Jackson Diehl
points out in the Monday Washington Post, of constantly counseling the
limitation of American power – in Syria, Iraq and against Iran – with the single
exception of the Israel-Palestinian dispute, where they urge the United States
to impose a solution on the parties by fiat.
THE MAIN damage from the
Hagel nomination has already been done, regardless of whether he is confirmed
(the likely outcome). That damage consists of the signal the nomination sends
about the president’s own policy preferences.
The Iranians will certainly
read his appointment as a presidential statement of willingness to live with
containment of a nuclear Iran – Hagel’s position – despite Obama’s repeated
rejection of that position during the 2012 campaign. And who can blame them? If
it turns out, as Dennis Ross continually assures us, that the president is
determined to use military force if there is no other way to stop the Iranian
nuclear program, then at the very least the Hagel appointment will have made a
military resolution of the issue more likely by misleading the
JEWISH OPPONENTS of the nomination would be wise, however, to
leave it to others to carry the ball, and not make an issue of Hagel’s alleged
anti-Semitism. His policy positions are sufficiently far out of the mainstream
for the argument to be made on that basis alone.
Proving what is in
Hagel’s heart is difficult at best, and trying to do so will have the inevitable
effect of turning the debate into one over whether the Jews are attempting to
silence criticism of Israel with McCarthyite smears of
True, there are grounds to conclude that Hagel is not a
philo-Semite. His reference to the “Jewish lobby” (instead of by the more
politically correct term “the Israel lobby”) and its power to intimidate on
Capitol Hill is troubling. At a minimum, it suggests that he cannot understand
America’s support of Israel except in terms of ethnic politics.
problematic was his staunch opposition to keeping open the USO Center for
American sailors in Haifa, where the Sixth Fleet docks, when he headed the
By all accounts, the Haifa USO was one of the most popular with US
sailors and also one of the most financially viable. Marsha Hatleman of JINSA
(Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) claims that Hagel told her,
“Let the Jews pay for it.”
Hagel’s past remarks about “aggressive”
homosexuals indicate that at the very least he did not learn all the rules of
modern political correctness growing up in Nebraska, a state in which Jews
constitute less than 0.33 percent of the population. He recently apologized to
homosexuals, however, out of recognition that, unlike the Jews, they could
torpedo his nomination.
Still, the American Jewish community has no
interest in letting Abe Foxman of the ADL drag it into a repeat of the fight
over Mel Gibson’s The Passion, which will only add to stereotypes of pushy and
Foxman needs to keep fears of anti-Semitism fresh
to maintain the ADL’s $50m. annual budget. But American Jewry does not share
American Jews, like every other American citizen, have the
right to make their voices heard on the Hagel nomination.
But they should
not make the issue a Jewish one.
Hagel’s views on Iran’s nuclear program
should be of greater concern to all Americans than his views on Israel, since he
would be overseeing an American strike that he is on record as strongly
AIPAC has wisely retained a low profile on the Hagel nomination
to date, no doubt out of recognition that there will be plenty of senators to
lead the charge. It has no interest in confronting the president head on,
especially in a battle likely to be lost. Nevertheless it will be interesting to
see how the 70% of American Jews who voted for Obama – or at least the ones not
so enamored of Thomas Friedman that they bought the computer program that allows
the purchaser to write his own Friedman columns on any subject – explain the
Hagel nomination to themselves.
The writer is director of Jewish Media
Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since
1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.