Chuck Hagel, Israel, and Honest Debate

Atlantic Council chairman Chuck Hagel has been widely reported to be President Obama’s choice for secretary of defense. Given that he’s my boss’ boss, I’ve refrained from commentary on his merits for the job.  But silence in the face of slander is too often taken as admission.

Running the defense department, which has by far the largest budget of any federal agency and has been on war footing for more than a decade,  is a huge job.  The next secretary will shape decisions the country will live with for decades. It’s absolutely vital for senators, who have a Constitutional duty to advise and consent on cabinet appointments, to ask tough questions of any nominee. And, certainly, it’s fair game for pundits and others in the media to weigh in.

It’s perfectly reasonable to debate Hagel’s views on the size of the defense budget, how best to respond to Iran’s nuclear program, or, indeed, US security policy vis-a-vis Israel. Even sideline discussions, such as whether it’s time for a woman to head the Pentagon or the wisdom of Democratic presidents routinely nominating moderate Republicans to this particular post, are well worth having.

What’s beyond the pale, however, is the campaign of libel and innuendo underway by the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and others declaring Hagel to be “anti-Israel” or even “anti-Semitic” in an attempt to poison the well.  It’s an outrageous  charge  that’s sadly wielded all too often against Americans who deviate from the hard line Likudist position on the Israel-Palestine debate. We’ve somehow arrived at the bizarre point where espousing the platform of the Israeli Labor Party is enough to get an American politician labeled “anti-Israel.”

Many critics have pointed to this line from Hagel’s 2008 book, America: Our Next Chapter:

I’m a United States 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.

Brett Stephens of the WSJ and others have insinuated that this is a thinly disguised charge that American Jews have a “Dual loyalty.”  But Open Zion‘s Peter Beinart  rightly terms that “Nonsense.”

All Hagel is saying is that although he supports Israel, when American and Israeli interests diverge, he puts American interests first. And like every other two countries on earth, American and Israeli interests do sometimes diverge. A guy named Ronald Reagan said so in 1981, when AIPAC and the Israeli government were lobbying against America’s sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy decisions,” Reagan told the press. Was Reagan implying that AIPAC—a largely Jewish organization—was doing the business of “other nations” and thus disloyal to the United States?

Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, amusingly uses almost the exact same language in rebutting the accusation: “this anti-Semitism charge is getting old and over-used. Hagel was a US  senator, not a member of the Israeli parliament. His job has been to think about what’s good for America. Interestingly, there are many who feel that in doing so he’s also been a good friend of Israel in the sense that friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

Washington Post columnist  Dana Milbank notes that Hagel’s critics ignore  evidence that’s inconvenient to their case:

He voted for the Iran Nonproliferation Act, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act and the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act. He co-sponsored resolutions opposing any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and praising Israel’s efforts “in the face of terrorism, hostility and belligerence by many of her neighbors.” He also co-sponsored legislation urging the international community “to avoid contact with and refrain from supporting the terrorist organization Hamas until it agrees to recognize Israel, renounce violence, disarm and accept prior agreements.”

ThinkProgress Security bloggers Hayes Brown and Ben Armbruster add that,

Hagel has a long history of pro-Israel sentiment and concern about Iran. The following is a collection of some of Hagel’s public statements on Israel during his time in the Senate:

  • “We have always been a strong ally of Israel — since the formation of Israel in 1948. We’ll continue to be a strong ally of Israel.” [10/15/2000]
  • “A close friend and ally, Israel, remains threatened by some of its neighbors.Violent Islamic extremism finds refuge in Iraq, Iran, and Syria and seeks to make inroads elsewhere in the region. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains a threat. […] Both Israelis and Palestinians have unmet obligations, neither side can justify further inaction. American leadership can push and prod but we cannot force Israelis or Palestinians to negotiate.” [11/15/2005]
  • U.S. Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) today sent a letter to Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, calling for the United Nations to offer a strong resolution condemning recent statements by Iranian President Mohammed Ahmadinejad and by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Khameni threatening the existence of Israel and the United States. [12/21/2005]
  • The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But, it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.” [07/30/2006]

In that light, one of the first to defend against the attacks was J Street, which posted on its blog that, “J Street believes former US Senator Chuck Hagel would be a fine choice as Secretary of Defense and is appalled by efforts surfacing in recent days to question his commitment to the state of Israel and to Middle East peace.” It continues, “Sen. Hagel has been one of the most thoughtful voices in Washington for two decades on questions relating to American policy in the Middle East. He has also been a staunch friend of the State of Israel and a trusted ally in the Senate, speaking out on behalf of America’s commitment to Israel’s security. “

Today, an open letter from nine distinguished diplomats—five of whom are former US ambassadors to Israel—testifies that, “Each of us has had the opportunity to work with Senator Hagel at one time or another on the issues of the Middle East. He has invariably demonstrated strong support for Israel and for a two-state solution and has been opposed to those who would undermine or threaten Israel’s security.”

Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, told POLITICO that Hagel’s “view on virtually every foreign policy, of which I know them, is very thoughtful, centrist, and pro-America. The attacks have just erupted in the last couple of days, and most of the people that I’ve talked to about it are astounded. I don’t know what’s motivating it and why.”

William Cohen, a former Republican Senator who served as defense secretary under Democrat Bill Clinton, praised Hagel as “enormously qualified” for the job and notes that the fact that the Vietnam Infantry veteran with two Purple Hearts “has shed blood and taken blood on the battlefield . . . gives him a lot of credibility with the military, and a number of his colleagues.”

Additionally, Cohen points to the absurdity of much of the debate, noting that, “Once you join a national security team, you’re not a sovereign, independent agent anymore. The president wants the secretary of defense to raise issues and give him the best possible advice, and then the president decides. The notion that somehow Senator Hagel has taken positions that might not be the same as the president is really quite irrelevant. The president will tell him what the policy is.”

It’s worth noting, too that, Hagel currently serves as co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and as a member of the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board. Presumably, the president already has a pretty good idea about his views on the critical issues of defense and national security policy. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner

Image: chuck-hagel.jpg