In the fortnight since Chuck Hagel’s name was floated for secretary of defense, we have witnessed Washington at its worst.
Who is Chuck Hagel?
Born in North Platte, Neb., he was a squad leader in Vietnam, twice wounded, who came home to work in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, was twice elected U.S. senator, and is chairman of the Atlantic Council and co-chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
To The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, however, Hagel is a man “out on the fringes,” who has a decade-long record of “hostility to Israel” and is “pro-appeasement-of-Iran.”
Lest we miss Kristol’s point, Standard blogger Daniel Halper helpfully adds that a “top Republican Senate aide” said, “Send us Hagel, and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens continued in this vein.
“Prejudice … has an olfactory element,” he writes, and with Hagel, “the odor is especially ripe.” Stephens is saying that Chuck Hagel reeks of anti-Semitism.
Hagel’s enemies contend that his own words disqualify him.
First, he told author Aaron David Miller that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up there” on the Hill. Second, he urged us to talk to Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran. Third, Hagel said several years ago, “A military strike against Iran … is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”
Hagel has conceded he misspoke in using the phrase “Jewish lobby.” But as for a pro-Israel lobby, its existence is the subject of books and countless articles. When AIPAC sends up to the Hill one of its scripted pro-Israel resolutions, it is whistled through. Hagel’s problem: He did not treat these sacred texts with sufficient reverence.
“I am a United States senator, not an Israeli senator,” he told Miller. “I support Israel. But my first interest is I take an oath … 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.”
Hagel puts U.S. national interests first. And sometimes those interests clash with the policies of the Israeli government.
In 1957, President Eisenhower told Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to get his army out of Sinai. Would that disqualify Ike from being secretary of defense because, to quote Kristol, this would show Ike was not “serious about having Israel’s back”?
If a senator or defense secretary believes an Israeli action — like bisecting the West Bank with new settlements that will kill any chance for a Palestinian state and guarantee another intifada — what should he do?
Defend the U.S. position, or make sure there is “no daylight” between him and the Israeli prime minister?
As for talking to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, what are we afraid of?
Harry Truman talked to Josef Stalin and read Vyacheslav Molotov the riot act in the Oval Office. Ike invited Nikita Khrushchev to tour the United States three years after he sent tanks into Budapest.
Richard Nixon went to China and toasted Mao Zedong, 20 years after the Chinese were killing U.S. solders in Korea and brainwashing our POWs, and at the same time they were conducting their maniacal cultural revolution and shipping weapons to Hanoi.
Israel negotiated with Hezbollah to retrieve the remains of airman Ron Arad and traded 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in a deal with Hamas for the return of Pvt. Gilad Shalit. And we can’t talk to them?
If Hagel’s view that a war with Iran is not a “responsible option” is a disqualification for defense secretary, what are we to make of this statement from Robert Gates, defense secretary for Bush II and Obama:
“Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur so delicately put it.”
If Hagel were an anti-Semite, would he have the support of so many Jewish columnists and writers? If he were really “out on the fringes,” would national security advisers for presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Obama be in his camp?
Neocon hostility to Hagel is rooted in a fear that in Obama’s inner councils his voice would be raised in favor of negotiating with Iran and against a preventive war or pre-emptive strike. But if Obama permits these assaults to persuade him not to nominate Hagel, he will only be postponing a defining battle of his presidency, not avoiding it.
For Bibi Netanyahu is going to be re-elected this January. And the government he forms looks to be more bellicose than the last. And Bibi’s highest priority, shared by his neocon allies, is a U.S. war on Iran in 2013.
If Obama does not want that war, he is going to have to defeat the war party. Throwing an old warrior like Chuck Hagel over the side to appease these wolves is not the way to begin this fight.
Nominate him, Mr. President. Let’s get it on.