01/08/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Chuck Hagel Media Debate Framed By Neocons

NEW YORK -- Neoconservative backers of the Iraq War have long had issues with Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of defense.

In August 2002, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol included Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, in his “axis of appeasement” before the U.S. invaded Iraq. Despite misgivings, Hagel eventually supported the Iraq War resolution, only to later break with reliably interventionist Republicans –- like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) -– by voting for withdrawal and speaking out against the so-called surge. “In Washington, Hagel is reviled by neoconservatives,” The New Republic’s John Judis wrote in a 2007 profile of the decorated Vietnam War veteran turned Iraq critic.

So it's no surprise that Hagel's biggest critics on cable news in recent days, and in op-eds and blog posts over the past month, hail from the camp of enthusiastic Iraq War boosters who continued advocating for U.S. military involvement long after many early supporters voiced concerns over the disaster at hand. The cable news chorus now argues that Hagel, who broke ranks to question wrong-headed policy, is the one "outside the mainstream" of responsible thinking on foreign policy.

The anti-Hagel campaign began last month, amid reports that Obama was considering him for the Pentagon post being vacated by Leon Panetta.

On Dec. 13, The Weekly Standard quoted a top Republican Senate aide as saying that if Obama picks Hagel, "we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite." The anonymous aide cited Hagel's unfortunate use of the phrase "Jewish lobby" during a 2008 interview in which he otherwise referred to intimidation on Capitol Hill as coming from the "Israel lobby."

Hagel’s reference to the “Jewish lobby” has received a few mentions in the Jewish-focused press over the past several years, according to a Lexis-Nexis search, but it was never widely disseminated. After Dec. 13, however, the "Jewish lobby" quote was injected into the preliminary Beltway debate over Hagel, with Politico, for one, referencing it in an article that evening and in more than a half-dozen more articles over the next week. The “Israel lobby” quote came up throughout Monday’s coverage of Hagel, including in the Associated Press, and Tuesday morning on the "Today" show.

Hagel, in his first opportunity to respond to the weeks of criticism, told Nebraska's Lincoln Journal Star newspaper on Monday that there is "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel." While Hagel has opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran -- another point of contention among critics – he’s supported sanctions through the United Nations.

Critics weren't able to torpedo Hagel's nomination with the "Jewish lobby" controversy, which gained traction but is unlikely to prevent his confirmation.

But several Bush-era officials and high-profile Iraq supporters appear to be reading from the same script, arguing that Hagel is outside the mainstream on foreign policy matters even as he's received support from a bipartisan group of foreign policy thinkers including former National Security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.

Graham, a fixture on Sunday morning political shows, made that claim last month and again this past Sunday. Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary during the Bush administration, described Hagel Monday on CNN as being "outside the mainstream of both parties" and "too hard on Israel and too soft on Iran.”

Dan Senor, who served as the chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, suggested on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" Tuesday that Hagel is "outside the mainstream bipartisan consensus" on issues such as Iran. A few hours later, Kristol described Hagel’s positions as being “out of the mainstream” during a Fox News interview.

The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart took issue with the media giving so much weight to the views of unflinching Iraq War supporters, who have in turn shaped the discussion of Hagel's foreign policy views.

“Had a Martian descended to earth in January 2003, spent a few days listening to Washington Republicans talk foreign policy, and then returned in January 2013, she would likely conclude that the Iraq War had been a fabulous success,” Beinart wrote on Monday.

The Martian would come to that conclusion, he wrote, “because, as far as I can tell, not a single Republican-aligned Beltway foreign-policy politician or pundit enjoys less prominence than he did a decade ago because he supported the Iraq War, and not a single one enjoys more prominence because he opposed it.”

Beinart edited The New Republic when it backed the Iraq War, only to regret that support a year later. He argues that Republicans haven't had to admit being wrong on Iraq because they've constructed “an intellectual cocoon so hermetically sealed that it has remained uncontaminated by the greatest foreign-policy disaster of the past 30 years.”

Hagel didn't mention any critics by name Monday in the interview with the Lincoln Journal Star. But he did acknowledge that others began framing the debate before Obama officially nominated him, leaving him "hanging out there in no-man's land unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions.”