Obama Names Israel Critic To Head The Pentagon
By Avi Yishai
President Obama challenged many American supporters of Israel as well as those concerned about American policies in the Middle East and its military readiness when he nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to become the secretary of defense.
“Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve,” Obama said Monday in the East Room of the White House in a joint announcement of his choices of Hagel to head the Pentagon and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to replace General David Petraeus as head the Central Intelligence Agency.
He called Hagel, “a champion of our troops and our veterans and our military families. Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction,” Obama said, referring to his record as an enlisted soldier who was wounded in the Vietnam War.
In a brief response, Hagel pledged to work to “strengthen our country and strengthen our country’s alliances, and advance global freedom, decency and humanity as we help build a better world for all mankind.” He said he would always give Obama “my honest and most informed counsel.”
A lack of candor has never been Chuck Hagel’s problem. His deliberately blunt and outspoken remarks over the years, criticizing American supporters of Israel and questioning their loyalty to the United States, and urging the appeasement of America’s enemies such as Iran and Syria, by engaging in endless negotiations rather than the direct, military action needed, has been the distinguishing feature of his record in public life.
Many believe that Obama picked him for the job for two reasons. First, Hagel once was a Republican senator, which will make it more awkward for Republicans today to attack him for following Obama’s program to slash US military spending to dangerously low levels. Second, when concerned critics challenge Hagel’s efforts to drastically downsize the Pentagon, he will be able to wave his Vietnam war medals in their faces.
Obama selected Hagel to be his defense secretary despite a broad outcry of opposition by supporters of Israel and some of his former Republican colleagues in the US Senate. Many still resent Hagel for turning against President George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq. Most notably, in January, 2007, Hagel condemned Bush’s troop surge strategy in Iraq. He called the idea of sending another 30,000 US troops to Iraq “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.“
Hagel was wrong. Honest Democrat critics of the Iraq war admit that the surge strategy enabled the US military to make a successful exit, leaving Iraq as a functioning, though flawed, self-governing democracy.
CRITICISM OF HAGEL IS GROWING
Following Hagel’s 12-year-career in the Senate, he earned many enemies in Washington, especially in his former political party. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, said he would oppose Hagel. Cornyn said that Hagel is “profoundly wrong on some of the biggest national security threats confronting the United States today.”
Other Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate reserved judgement, rather than giving Hegel the automatic endorsements which Senator John Kerry received when he was nominated to become Secretary of State.
The initial feeling in Washington after Hagel’s nomination was that while the White House will have to fight to get him confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was likely to win approval. But instead of rallying around Hagel, criticism by former colleagues and from other quarters of Hagel’s record on Israel, Iran, negotiating on terrorism and downsizing the US military, has been growing steadily.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. Unlike previous cabinet confirmation fights in the senate, which turned on questions of morality and personal character, the objections being voiced about Hagel relate entirely to his extreme policy views on Israel and national security, which are key issues for any nominee to become defense secretary.
NO FRIENDS LEFT IN THE GOP
Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that will hold a confirmation hearing on Hagel’s nomination, said, “This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel. Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking on most issues regarding foreign policy,” and that if confirmed, Hagel “would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history.” Graham also added that Hagel “has long severed his ties with the Republican Party.”
One senior GOP Senate aide said that Hagel “basically doesn’t have a single Senate Republican friend who served with him.” He added that Hagel while in the Senate had not only given cover to Democrats on a number of high-profile issues but that he had also badly alienated his colleagues.
Newly elected Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, said, “If Hagel is nominated, it is very difficult to imagine a circumstance in which I could support his nomination.”
Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has also said that he could not vote to confirm Hagel’s nomination.
McCAIN EXPRESSES HIS CONCERNS
Senator John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran and longtime friend of Hagel, opened his comments on the nomination by noting that Hagel “served our nation with honor in Vietnam.” But he then added, “I have serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process before the Senate Armed Services Committee.”
McCain also said he has “many questions and concerns” about John Brennan’s nomination to serve as head of the CIA, “especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs.”
McCain, who suffered years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was an outspoken opponent of the interrogation procedure known as “waterboarding” used briefly on a few top terrorists during the Bush administration.
Friends of Israel have been concerned about Hagel’s influence on Obama’s policies since Obama named him as co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board at the start of his first term. He also serves as a policy advisor for Obama’s secretary of defense and secretary of energy.
AN OUTSPOKEN OPPONENT OF ISRAEL
Hagel has spoken out repeatedly against Israeli construction in Yerushalayim and the West Bank and called for a return to the pre-1967 lines.
Like Obama and many in the State Department, Hagel has been openly antagonistic towards Israel’s claims to the West Bank and Yerushalayim. He has also questioned Israel’s sincerity in trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In 2006, Hagel told former US diplomat Aaron David Miller in an interview for Miller’s book, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people here [in Washington]. . . I’m a United States Senator, not an Israeli 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 a party. Not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.”
Miller claims that Hagel’s opponents hijacked that quote and that he does not believe that Hagel is anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. But Hagel’s critics suggest that these comments are consistent with Hagel’s long history of outspoken criticism of Israel and a tendency to go soft on terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah, and the regimes which support them, like Iran.
While still a senator, he spoke out repeatedly against any US military intervention against Iran and opposed the imposition of unilateral US economic sanctions against Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. He has been opposed in general to any new US military intervention, if, for instance, the Syrian regime were to collapse, preferring instead to negotiate, regardless of the provocation.
A TINGE OF ANTI-SEMITISM
Hagel’s many pro-Israel critics simply don’t believe his claims that he really supports Israel. They say that his numerous highly critical statements about Israel and its supporters are, at best, condescending and inaccurate, and at worst, represent a soft kind of anti-Semitism.
Hagel’s negative comments about Israel go back years. In 2002, when more than 450 Jews in Israel were killed in terrorist attacks, Hagel said that it was up to Israel to “take steps to show its commitment to peace.”
In 2006, Hagel condemned Israel’s military response to the wave of thousands of missiles fired by Hezbollah from South Lebanon as “the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon.” Hagel refused to sign a letter calling on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
In 2007, Hagel spoke out and later voted against designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization, even though it provides support and fighters to assist terrorist groups around the world.
He called upon President Bush to open “direct, unconditional” talks with Iran to create “a historic new dynamic in US-Iran relations.”
This was exactly the policy toward Iran which Barack Obama tried to implement shortly after he took office in 2009, as part of his outreach efforts to the Muslim world. That policy failed, and was seen by Iran’s leaders and the rest of the Arab world as a sign of Obama’s weakness.
Hagel, as a member of Obama administration policy advisory boards, has continued to push diplomatic instead of military efforts to halt the advances by Iran and other enemies of the US and Israel in the region.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens noted that disparaging Hagel’s comments about the pro-Israel lobby carrying an implied accusation that American-Jewish supporters of Israel are guilty of harboring dual loyalties.
Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, called Hagel, “One of the most hostile critics of Israel that has ever been in the Senate.”
HAGEL AND THE JEWISH LEFT
Hagel’s defenders claim that his comments about Israel and its Aipac supporters, while blunt, are accurate, and reflect what many in Washington privately believe about Israel but are afraid to say out loud. They also claim that Hagel’s views on Israel’s West Bank and Yerushalayim policies are largely shared by liberal Jewish groups in the US and Israel, such as J Street and Peace Now.
Hagel’s nomination has also been supported by a number of US foreign policy and national security policy veterans, such as Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell, as well as several former US ambassadors to Israel.
His supporters point to a book Hagel wrote in 2008 called “America; Our Next Chapter,” which contains a carefully worded endorsement of US support for Israel tied to a renewed US effort to broker a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “The Israeli people must be free to live in peace and security,” Hagel wrote. “Similarly, the Palestinian people must also have the same right to live in peace in Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital and with the same hope for a prosperous future.”
Hagel clearly implies that Israel must withdraw to the pre-67 lines, adding that, “there is one important given that is not negotiable: a comprehensive solution should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity. . . There will always be a special and historic bond with Israel, exemplified by our continued commitment to Israel’s defense. But this commitment cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.”
HAGEL’S SENATE RECORD
Hagel’s name has been floating around as a likely member of Obama’s second term cabinet ever since the November election was over. He was mentioned as a possible candidate for head of the CIA, secretary of state, or secretary of commerce, before the speculation settled on the Pentagon as Hagel’s likely assignment, replacing retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
During his two terms as a US Senator from Nebraska, from 1996 to 2008, Hagel served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and the Select Committee on Intelligence. He considered making a run for the 2008 presidential nomination before deciding to retire from his Senate seat, after having alienated many of his fellow Republicans with his bluntly outspoken criticism of Bush’s Iraq policies.
The lingering resentment by GOP leaders for Hagel negates any political advantage that Obama may have hoped to gain from appointing a Republican to the post. However, it is clear that Obama did not nominate Hagel because of his bi-partisan credentials. Instead, Obama picked Haagel because they shared an opposiion to the Iraq war when they were in the Senate together, and still share similar views on Israel and the Middle East.
Hagel was always proud of his role as an outspoken maverick in the Senate who did not hesitate to defy his president and party leaders. While a senator, he condemned Bush’s policies in a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations as “incompetent.” He voted against confirmation of Bush’s 2005 nomination of John Bolton to serve as US ambassador to the UN. His final break with the party took place in 2008, when he endorsed Obama for president over McCain.
HAGEL HAS A LOT TO EXPLAIN
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reserved judgement on whether he would vote to confirm Hagel’s nomination pending the outcome of the committee hearings. “He’s certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years,” McConnell said Sunday. He noted that any nominee to head the Pentagon “must have a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat, and the importance of having a robust military. . . The question we’ll be answering is: Do his views make sense for that particular job? I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee. And he will be.”
Both Republican and some Democrat senators said that in the confirmation hearings they expect Hagel to explain his outspoken statements on Iran, Israel, negotiating with terrorists and the appropriate role for the US military.
In an interview published Monday in a Nebraska newspaper, Hagel said that his critics “completely distorted” his record. He denied that he is “anti-Israeli,” and promised to show his “unequivocal, total support for Israel” and his support for tough international economic sanctions against Iran.
JEWISH DEMOCRATS SPLIT
Breaking with President Obama, several prominent Jewish Democrats have also spoken out against Hagel’s nomination. They include lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who said that Hagel’s nomination “gives comfort to the Arab world.”
Senator Charles Schumer, the Jewish Democrat from New York, who has long claimed to be an ardent defender of Israel, has ducked direct questions about Hagel’s suitability to serve as defense secretary. After Obama announced the nomination, Schumer issued a statement saying, “Chuck Hagel, as a former colleague and a patriot with a decorated service record, has earned the right to nothing less than a full and fair process in the Senate. I look forward to fully studying his record and exploring his views.” The lack of a firm opinion about Hagel seemed odd coming from someone who served with Hagel in the Senate for ten years.
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who believes that all of his fellow Jewish Democrats should feel duty-bound to oppose Hagel’s nomination, said that, “this is a test for Chuck Schumer, where he stands, and what he will say.”
New York’s other senator, Kirsten Gillebrand, was also very cautious in reacting to Hagel’s nomination Monday, obviously sensitive to the concerns of Jewish voters in her state about Hagel’s questionable record on Israel.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a traditional Jew, strongly denounced Hagel’s nomination, Cantor called him “the wrong man for the job at such a pivotal time.” He added that Hagel’s “views and inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream and raise well-founded doubts that he can be trusted to manage the special relationship the United States shares with our greatest Middle East ally.” Cantor also condemned Hagel’s “reported views” on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and defense spending, characterizing them as “a call for a broad retreat” from America’s preeminent role in the world.
Another Jewish congressman, Elliot Engel, who is now the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that Hagel has “some kind of an endemic hostility toward Israel. And that’s troublesome for me and for a lot of other people.”
Other Jewish Democrats, such as Carl Levin, the Democrat chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, have chosen to put their allegiance to Obama and his liberal agenda ahead of Israel and Jewish causes by endorsing Hagel for the Pentagon post.
Ironically, when Hagel was a Republican in the Senate, the National Jewish Democratic Committee (NJDC) criticized him and published a list of his anti-Israel statements and actions when he was considering a run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. Now some of those same Jewish Democrats are quiet after Obama’s decision to nominate him.
HAGEL’S MORE RECENT CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENTS
Hagel has remained controversial since leaving the Senate. In 2009, he urged Obama to open direct talks with Hamas. He has also been critical of Obama’s expansion of the US involvement in the war in Afghanistan. In 2011, Hagel complained about the “bloated” Pentagon budget saying that it was time for it to be “pared down.”
These comments are why Hagel’s appointment as secretary of defense is controversial for many conservatives in Washington above and beyond his troubling statements and positions on Israel.
A Washington Post editorial called Hagel “isolated in his views about Iran during his time in the Senate. He repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against US troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior.”
The editorial questioned whether Hagel would properly implement a decision by Obama to use force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons if he were defense secretary, should Obama ever go so far.
Other critics of Hagel’s appointment said that Obama had passed over two senior Democrats already working in the Defense Department, Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter, who are more qualified to serve as defense secretary.
In a radio interview a two weeks ago, when it seemed that Hagel’s Pentagon appointment was imminent, Presidents Conference Executive Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein expressed concern that opposition to Hagel’s nomination seemed to be centering on his positions on Israel, while ignoring many other problematic aspects of his record during his years in the Senate and his role as a policy advisor to President Obama.
For example, Bill Kristol, the respected conservative columnist for the Weekly Standard, who helped develop the neoconservative school of US foreign policy which led to the Iraq war, is an outspoken opponent of Hagel’s nomination. In December, Kristol called the prospect of Hagel as Defense Secretary “really appalling.
PRESSURE FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
The most vocal Jewish endorsements of Hagel’s nomination have come from the left and others who share Obama’s outspoken opposition to Israel’s presence and claims in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim.
These include a recent piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which Malcolm Hoenlein believes was written at the request of the White House.
Hoenlein was carefully non-committal about Hagel’s nomination. He noted that Israel and its supporters must be able to work with the President of the United States and his cabinet members, whoever they may be.
The day before Obama announced Hagel’s nomination, the White House quietly called the heads of various secular American Jewish organizations to ask them to hold their fire until the nominee gets a chance to explain himself at his confirmation hearings. For example, David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), confirmed that he had been in contact with the administration over the nomination, and still admitted that his organization has a “set of major concerns” about the nominee’s views. In letters that AJC has sent to its members, it expressed its disagreement with Hagel’s “opinions on a range of core US national security priorities.”
White House pressure on the Hagel nomination seemed to influence the views of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Earlier Foxman had said that, “I particularly hope Senator Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the “Jewish Lobby” that were hurtful to many in the Jewish community.” But after a phone call from the White House, Foxman issued a carefully worded semi-retraction saying that, “Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative.”
HAGEL’S TIES TO LEFT WING JEWISH GROUPS
In line with Hagel’s outspoken criticism of Aipac’s influence in Washington, Hagel encouraged the development of the left wing Jewish lobbying groups known as J Street and the Israel Policy Forum, which have tried to supplant Aipac’s position as the main pro-Israel voice in this country. Hagel has given keynote speeches at the gatherings of both left wing groups. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, came to Hagel’s defense. He said, “The notion that Chuck Hagel is anti-Israel is ludicrous. The notion that he is anti-Semitic is slanderous.”
Morris Amitay, founder of the pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee and former executive director of Aipac said that if he were a senator, he wouldn’t vote to confirm Hagel.
“It’s a poor choice not only regarding Israel, but it’s a poor choice for national security,” Amitay said. “Someone who basically has been fairly soft on strengthening Iran sanctions and who seems to feel there can be major cuts in the defense budget is a very poor choice for the United States.”
Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt, who, with John Mearsheimer, wrote the notorious book called, “The Israel Lobby,” condemning Aipac and its supporters, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that, “The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free.”
Another notorious anti-Semite who has endorsed Hagel’s nomination is Pat Buchanan. He has also been praised as qualified by Jimmy Carter’s former national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzenzinski. The list of Hagel supporters, including Obama, appear to share one prominent characteristic, they have a long history of hostility towards Israel’s policies and its American Jewish supporters.
Elections have consequences, and this is another one of them.