A range of critics has emerged to challenge the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be President Obama's next Secretary of Defense. Their attacks have mostly centered on Hagel's supposedly "fringe" ideas about Iran -- he has voiced support for negotiating with that country -- and for his alleged hostility toward Israel. Upping the ante on that line of attack, Bret Stephens, writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, said that remarks Hagel made a few years ago had the "odor" of antisemitism.
Hagel, in all likelihood, is eventually going to be confirmed. But the brouhaha over his nomination reflects poorly on how little room for debate there is in the United States on critical foreign policy matters.
Ben Armbruster at ThinkProgress writes sensibly about how misplaced the attacks on Chuck Hagel are.
- Hagel's support for negotiations with Iran and reluctance to go to war with that country are a) consistent with the president's own stated views; b) consistent with that of the vast majority of Israel's major security officials; c) in line with American public opinion. Hagel has, by the way, voiced strong public support for sanctions against Iran.
- Hagel's suggestion several years ago that Israel negotiate with Hamas is also well within the acceptable boundaries of Israeli political discourse (which, as has been pointed out innumerable times, includes more wide-ranging and critical views about Israel's conduct than is true in US discussions about Israel). Israeli President Shimon Peres and other senior security officials there have said essentially the same thing.
- Hagel has, in fact, made repeated statements in support of Israel's security prerogatives, and has described Israel's relationship with the United States as "a special and historic one."
As for those charges of antisemitism -- they largely boil down to comments he made in an interview a few years ago, in which he said that a lot of members of Congress were afraid of the "Jewish Lobby." This was the focus of Stephens' smear, for example. Elsewhere in the interview, Hagel referred to the "Israel lobby" and has since apologized for those comments. But whether or not Hagel spoke inartfully, who can deny that in general, if you are running for Congress, it's far safer politically to be "pro-Israel" than to publicly question its security prerogatives?
Hagel was in the mainstream of the Republican Party on security matters until just a few years ago, before the remaining elements of temperance more or less left the GOP for good. The attacks on him today from the likes of John McCain and Eric Cantor reflect little more than partisan politics and the by now almost complete intransigence of the Republican Party even on matters about which there is no substantive controversy.
Hagel's views align more or less seamlessly with conventional wisdom among American and Israeli military officials. More to the point, if Chuck Hagel is Secretary of Defense, there is no plausible argument that US foreign policy toward Israel specifically or more broadly will change notably. Though it seems likely that significant cuts are coming to the Pentagon in any event, we will continue to maintain a vast global military presence, will continue to spend more than any other country on our armed forces and will continue to leverage our economic and military might to push our interests in all corners of the globe. America is not going to stand down because Chuck Hagel is SecDef. Nor is it going to cease treating Israel as a uniquely favored ally. His most vocal critics are not, by and large, engaging in a substantive attack on his likely conduct as Secretary of Defense because they cannot plausibly argue that his appointment would change meaningfully any of these realities.
Instead, some have resorted to dark insinuation, a key goal of which is to continue to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse in the United States about our foreign policy in general and about Israel, in particular. The attacks on Hagel represent an egregious case of political correctness -- attempting to use the pretext of a stray phrase to ensure that no meaningful dialogue about vitally important issues can take place. There are proper grounds to debate Hagel's nomination -- including his ties to the energy lobby and the security implications of those for our policies in that arena. But these will receive scarcely any attention at all, given how narrow is the respectable ideological spectrum in the US when it comes to our overseas conduct. The charges against Hagel that have received a hearing do little more than perpetuate our inability to debate seriously issues of vital national concern.