The motives behind the effort by the neoconservatives and their Republican supporters to block the appointment of former Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense are all too obvious. They pushed this nation into a disastrous war in Iraq that cost many lives and damaged many others and that squandered our financial resources. Now, they want to punish the man who having first endorsed the war, was enlightened enough to speak out early on about the pointlessness of expanding our involvement. By doing so, they are also trying to teach a lesson to others who would decry their effort in getting us into that war and urging that warlike strategy for other situations in Iran and Syria. They are doing this by openly making false allegations and resorting to improper innuendo. The American people should not countenance that process.
Let's examine some of the allegations against Hagel that are being stated openly and also hinted at. One criticism relates to the claim that Hagel is not supportive of Israel; obviously an attempt to influence the American Jewish community. Hagel, they note, has argued against ruling out any discussions by Israel and the United States with Hamas. Hagel has referred to "the Jewish lobby." And Elliott Abrams, who served on George W. Bush's National Security team, and now is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has gone so far as to suggest that Hagel had "some kind of problem with Jews." Finally, Hagel is being attacked for suggesting that other solutions should be pursued than a war on Iran.
First, let me note that direct negotiations with Hamas would require that Hamas meet the American conditions, including recognition of Israel's right to exist as a state. I happen to believe that Hamas will not change its positions. But offering to meet with them if they meet our conditions arguably is a way to determine if we can induce them to change and imposes no obligation on the U.S. other than to see if it can bring the parties closer together. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed out, being pro-Israel "doesn't mean you have to agree with every single position that the Israeli government takes." Indeed, in my view, based on a long history of dealing with both parties, described in my book An Entrepreneur's Journey, there is little likelihood of a deal between Israel and the Palestinians while Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas continue to lead their respective entities without a strong effort by Washington to bring them together, and probably that may not be enough.
Moreover, as President of the American Jewish Congress, Chair of the Israel Policy Forum and a member of the Executive Committee of AIPAC, (the American Israel Political Action Committee) the pro-Israel lobby, I engaged in presenting pro-Israel positions to the administration and Congress. It was clear to those I spoke to that I was speaking as an American Jew, and it was obvious that in their deliberations they were taking account of the Jewish vote and Jewish financial support. A preferred term to the "Jewish lobby" is the "pro-Israel lobby" and Hagel has apologized for his phraseology -- but what he said was fully understandable. Relating to Abram's innuendo, the Council on Foreign Relations' president Richard Haass said it best: that he had known Mr. Hagel for years and that any accusations of anti-Semitism were "preposterous."
As for engaging with Iran in seeking to avoid war, Hagel sensibly argued, "Let them think about the substantial carrots of improved relations, not just the sticks and there may be a deal to be had." Americans can only approve that kind of cautious approach by one of the few senators who was a wounded and decorated veteran of the Vietnam war where he served as an enlisted soldier and fully comprehends the terrible toll that war takes on our troops and their families, not to say on the entire nation.
Despite support for Hagel from former national security advisors, and secretaries of state as fully qualified, there have been and will be other attempts to paint Hagel as not qualified for the position of secretary of defense. The vague implication by Republican Senator Bob Corker about Hagel's "overall temperament" as reflected in his treatment of his staff, is indicative of what we can expect. But we should not be fooled. What this attack on Hagel is really about is an effort to get even with him, a former Republican Senator, for disavowing the war on Iraq and the Republican Party's movement to the far right on a number of issues -- positions that the American people clearly rejected in this last presidential election. It serves as a warning shot across the bow to those who would dare challenge a ready willingness to resort to war as a solution for difficult situations. It is also an effort to keep out of the office of Defense Secretary someone with experience and sophistication in matters of defense and politics, who will start to impose on that department the rigorous analysis and fiscal discipline that is required to make is both more effective and less costly.
It is a rarity in this country for the president's choice of cabinet member to be blocked by the Senate. The American people should make clear that the self-serving effort by some to smear a talented man of great integrity will not stand.
Mr. Lifton is a businessman and political activist. His book "An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy" has recently been published by Author House.