This article was published on Al Jazeera on December 28. Thanks to a strong pushback against the lobby, Obama has now nominated Chuck Hagel as his new Secretary of Defence.
You have to do no more than watch this attack ad produced by the neoconservative pressure group the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) to understand the significance of Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination as US secretary of defence. The former Republican senator from Nebraska is guilty of a cardinal sin which has cut short many promising careers in Washington. He has proved himself insufficiently loyal to Israel and less than enthusiastic about confronting Iran.
Signals from Washington are mixed. Barack Obama’s myriad capitulations have earned him a well-deserved reputation for invertebracy; and some reports suggest he has caved already. But in the Byzantine world of Washington intrigue, one has to proceed with caution.
Since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, some of his more sensible initiatives, such as the opening to Iran, have been sabotaged by officials within his administration speaking anonymously to the press. What better way to kill a controversial nomination than to convince everybody that it is already dead!
The ECI, a relatively new actor, has not been alone in targeting Hagel. It has been ably assisted by the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the National Jewish Democratic Council, The Israel Project, and the Zionist Organisation of America. Affiliates from both within and outside the government have gone on the offensive.
The op-ed pages of the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal have all helped amplify the smears. The chorus has been joined by the familiar cast of Israel apologists in Congress, led by Chuck Schumer, Joseph Lieberman and Eliot Engel. Besides accusing Hagel of “endemic hostility towards Israel”, one of them, Engel, has also detected a “prejudice”.
So ferocious has been the assault that it has led MJ Rosenberg, a one-time Israel lobbyist who has emerged as a staunch critic, to observe:
Never before has virtually the entire organised Jewish community combined to stop a presidential cabinet appointment because it deems the potential nominee insufficiently devoted to Israel.
Critic of the Iraq war
If the lobby has been relentless, Hagel’s support hasn’t been entirely passive either. Not everyone has been as blunt as the influential columnist Andrew Sullivan who has called on the president to “grow a pair“. But Hagel has also received solid backing from realist greybeards, including four former National Security Advisers, two Republicans and two Democrats and several retired diplomats.
His record of independence has earned him support from liberal organisations like MoveOn and Just Foreign Policy; and intelligent progressives like Chris Hayes and Glenn Greenwald have also defended him against the smears. He has received the endorsement of eminent scholars likeStephen Walt and David Bromwich, establishment heavy-weights like Lee Hamilton, and even the relatively dovish pro-Israel groups like J-Street and the Israel Policy Forum.
It is of course a misrepresentation to say that Hagel bears an animus toward Israel. Like almost every other US politician, he too has paid tribute to the Moloch-on-the-Hill with mealy-mouthed platitudes about the sanctity of the “special relationship”. He may have been sceptical about the Iraq war but when he was called on to vote for it he, like his fellow realist Colin Powell, signed on with the rest of them.
But that is not what this is about. The intent is Pavlovian: if you aspire to high office in Washington, your commitment to the “special relationship” better be 100 percent. Even mild criticism could jeopardise your ascension.
Most establishment careerists have taken this lesson to heart and exercise prophylactic self-censorship. Those running for high office usually signal their intent by declaring their unqualified admiration for the State of Israel. A record is then chalked up of either sponsoring or voting on pro-Israel legislation. Adopting an uncompromising stance toward Israel’s enemies also helps.
One’s reliability is further affirmed by cultivating a “tough on defence” reputation, adopting a generally hawkish foreign policy position and calling for greater defence expenditures. (All of this makes it easier to justify military and diplomatic support for Israel and pass it off as serving American interests.)
Hagel, however, has left too many doubts about his commitment. In a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller, Hagel stressed:
I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator… I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.
In Washington, where every politician is required to affirm the identity of US-Israeli interests, such words constitute heresy.
The senator, however, has been equally provocative in deeds. Hagel was an early Republican critic of the Iraq war and a harsh opponent of the Bush administration. In his reckoning, it was the “the most arrogant, incompetent administrations [he had] ever seen or ever read about“; it was led by men whose intransigency was unmatched by a personal record of military service.
In 2005, he was the most prominent Republican to vote against John Bolton’s nomination as ambassador to the UN. During the 2006 Israeli assault on Lebanon, Hagel questioned the US government’s unconditional support for Israel and called for greater sensitivity towards Arab concerns. In 2009, he signed a policy statement urging the Obama administration to engage Hamas and foster reconciliation between the two main Palestinian factions.
Hagel refused to sign the various AIPAC-sponsored anti-Iran bills and, in a move that most irked the lobby, joined two former heads of US Central Command, General Anthony Zinny and Admiral William Fallon, to advise the president against war with Iran.
His biggest sin however was his lack of decorum in addressing Washington’s political realities. In the same interview with Miller, Hagel made the banal but provocative observation that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress.
Potential check on militarism
Hagel’s sloppy description was sufficient to earn him accusations of bigotry. But as the rest of the interview makes clear, what the senator was really talking about was the Israel lobby. The distinction between the two may exist more in conception than in reality but is nevertheless important to understand; if only to avoid accusations of “prejudice”.
The late great historian Tony Judt once observed that what makes the Israel lobby distinctive is that unlike other lobbies it is not content with achieving its desired political outcomes; it also had an interest in denying its own existence and enforcing silence on the subject of its lobbying. It exists “to silence as well as to voice, to suppress as well as to secure”.
During Obama’s first term when a similar battle raged over the appointment of former Ambassador Chas Freeman as the Director of National Intelligence and when Chuck Hagel’s name was first floated as a potential adviser, Natasha Mozgovaya of the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on an astonishing reality of American politics. “Every appointee to the American government”, she wrote, “must endure a thorough background check by the American Jewish community.”
This is a curious position for a democracy to find itself in where an interest group lobbying on behalf of a foreign state can exercise veto power over government appointments based on ideological litmus tests. The distortion it engenders has been obvious in the disastrous course of recent US foreign policy.
For the majority of Americans who are tired of perpetual war, the battle over Hagel’s appointment presents an opportunity to check this decline. They can finally confront the forces of militarism and restore much-needed sanity. It is not a coincident that the line-up of Hagel’s detractors looks remarkably similar to the line-up that promoted the Iraq war and is eager to bomb Iran. Hagel is far from a perfect candidate but he has many qualities that make his candidacy worth defending. As Bromwich notes:
There is not another American of high reputation in public life who has proved himself so free of the disastrous illusions that led to the Global War on Terror…[Hagel] is an independent thinker and a dissident… a man so alienated from the Republican war madness and other kinds of madness that he walked away from his party in 2008.
Given the political constraints in Washington, it is possible that Hagel will disappoint; but at least the possibility of change will not have been entirely extinguished. Hagel’s defeat will have a chilling effect on all non-conformists.
Hagel is conscious of the limits of American power and can serve as a potential check on militarism in a manner career bureaucrats like Leon Panetta never could. The Purple Heart veteran could also cut military spending without courting accusations of weakness. His failure will only embolden the most radical militarists in Washington and ensure a retrenchment of the status quo.
You may or may not agree with Hagel’s politics, but if you agree that independent thought shouldn’t be penalised and dissent not banished from government, then you can do worse than sign up to the campaigns being organised by Just Foreign Policy and MoveOn.