Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Preemptive War on Hagel

Israel Policy Forum
Chuck Hagel giving a keynote address to the Israel Policy Forum, December 4, 2008

Far more is at stake in Barack Obama’s decision on whether to nominate Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense than whether Chuck Hagel is nominated. What the president decides will bear on: his effectiveness in his second term; any president’s ability to form a government; whether an independent voice can be raised on a highly sensitive issue in opposition to the views of a powerful lobby and still be named to a significant government position; whether there is actually a proper nominating system; whether McCarthyite tactics can still be effective more than half a century after they were rejected by a fed-up nation. And, by the way, what will be the direction of American policy in the Middle East? In particular, how adventurous will we be toward Iran? Have we learned anything from the calamitous foreign policy blunders of the past decade?

Iran more than any other single issue is at the core of the opposition to Hagel, and that issue is closely linked to the question of the extent to which the US should be allied with the aggressive policies of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward Iran, as well as other issues, such as the settlements and a Palestinian state. And Iran has been among the policy differences Hagel has had over the years with the strongly pro-Israel organizations that are trying to influence US policy, the most politically powerful one being, of course, AIPAC. While still a senator, Hagel spoke out against using military force against Iran, was more circumspect about imposing sanctions, and refused to sign some of the more robust letters that AIPAC circulated on Capitol Hill, an extra-legislative way of trying to impose policy. The most vocal opponent to Hagel is Bill Kristol, an architect of the neocon policy that led to the Iraq war. Kristol set the tone for the opposition to Hagel by equating his criticism of some Israeli policies to “a record of consistent hostility to Israel,” and his caution about a possible military strike on Iran as “anti-Israel-pro-appeasement-of-Iran.” Hagel has been labeled “anti-Israel” by his opponents, and even “anti-semitic,” a monstrous and preposterous charge.

Less known about this fight is that a much larger and more peace-oriented segment of pro-Israel opinion strongly supports Hagel’s nomination. These organizations do not assume that particular policies of the Israeli government of the day are necessarily in Israel’s interests. Hagel has had quite friendly relations with J Street, founded a few years ago to try to offset AIPAC’S influence, and with the Israel Policy Forum, and has given keynote speeches to both organizations. A wide swath of former national security officials also support Hagel’s nomination as Defense Secretary, including Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as most of the former US ambassadors to Israel. Hagel also holds the highly prestigious position of co-chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Committee.

Hagel’s independence and criticism of Bush administration foreign policy left him with few admirers in the Senate Republican caucus, where party discipline is the order of the day. The blunt Hagel, a plain-spoken Nebraskan, has long exhibited a striking nonchalance about offending the powers that be: as the second-ranking official of the Veterans Administration during the Reagan administration, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran (two Purple Hearts), brushed off warnings that he might lose his job if he refused to attack Maya Lin’s stark Vietnam Memorial. Hagel said, “I serve at the pleasure of the President. If he fires me for supporting a design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so be it.”

The opponents of Hagel weren’t content to fight his nomination in the Senate, where they were expected to lose, so they have tried something different, with long-term significance to the power of the presidency. They have been attempting to dissuade the President from nominating Hagel, which he was on the verge of doing before this fight broke out. These forces counted on Obama’s caution, his oft-displayed lack of stomach for a fight, and set out to convince him that Hagel was “controversial”—that if he were nominated there would be a difficult set of confirmation hearings, so it wasn’t worth it.

In Washington it’s quite simple to get someone labeled “controversial.” All it takes is an attack by a prominent person, followed up by similar arguments by allies; throw in a couple of senators whom the press loves because they make controversial statements—John McCain has been the reigning champ for years—and, voila! someone is seen to have “a lot of opposition.” In the absence of a statement of support by the president, some elected politicians hide under their desks. Before you knew it the word in Washington was that Hagel was controversial and his nomination faced strong opposition.

The press fed the narrative that the neocons wanted. Controversy is so much more fun than balance. Meaningless statements by some politicians are accorded great significance and foreboding: thus a big deal was made in the press of the supposedly devastating comments made by two of McCain’s closest buddies—Joe Lieberman, who will be gone from the Senate shortly (“very tough confirmation process”), and Lindsey Graham (“it would be a challenging nomination”) on the Sunday talk shows just before Christmas. (Lieberman’s role as part of McCain’s “three amigos” is being taken over by Kelly Ayotte, a freshman from New Hampshire, who has thus won an unusually large amount of attention for such an early stage in her congressional career). Chuck Schumer of New York, with no persuasive reason to commit on a nomination that hadn’t been made, said that Hagel’s “record will be studied carefully”—and this was interpreted as a serious blow to Hagel’s confirmation.

But what had actually happened was that these senators, employing one of the talking points that had been circulated on the Hill and published in Kristol’s Weekly Standard, had simply indicated that the Senate Armed Services Committee’s consideration of a Hagel nomination would be rough. These innocuous statements, devoid of any real meaning, were strictly tactical. Not a single one of them said that they would vote against Hagel. (As of this writing exactly one senator, John Cornyn of Texas, has said that he would vote against the nomination.) Hearings could also expose the emptiness of their charges and put on display Hagel’s considerable array of supporters. That such substantial Senate figures as Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed, also a major figure on defense issues, have announced that they strongly support Hagel has gone almost without notice. To the press, they are the planes that landed.

This brings us to Barack Obama, and the question of whether reelection has strengthened his spine. Moreover, his Washington dealings were already marked by a certain sangfroid; if he dropped Hagel would he go to bat for anyone? (Or they for him?) Obama’s backing away from nominating Susan Rice as Secretary of State no doubt encouraged Hagel’s opponents, but hers was a quite different story. (Rice didn’t have the strong support that Hagel does, and there was concern in both parties that she was temperamentally unfit for the job and lacked the requisite stature.) But Rice’s withdrawal under pressure from consideration for a job for which she was never nominated—having been left dangling and then abandoned by Obama when it was clear she faced a rough fight over her nomination—left a difficult legacy for Hagel. Women activists thereupon demanded that one of the top national security jobs be filled by a female. After all, the argument went, the last three Secretaries of State were women, and so this was now considered an entitlement. John Kerry and Hagel would make for two white men in the top national security jobs. But championing diversity and playing identity politics are two different matters.

The hesitancy to name Hagel or another candidate is already diminishing Obama’s stature, erasing more of his post-election glow. While the president ponders, White House aides on an almost daily basis leaked ever-changing and sometimes conflicting estimates of Hagel’s chances, each unattributed comment pounced on as big news. The patterns of the leaks suggest that the noise being made by Hagel’s opponents and pressures by interest groups were having an effect on the president’s thinking, though they may have been simply reflecting the fluctuating predilections and panic among his staff. What was bizarre about the White House’s apparent mood swings about naming Hagel is that nothing that has happened should have come as a great surprise. There was no great reason not to anticipate the nature if not the vehemence of the attacks.

The White House could be excused for thinking that a reelected president would be treated with bit of respect by the opposition party, that Obama’s presidency would be accorded a legitimacy that so many had denied it during his first term. But on the nominations as well as the fiscal and tax issues many Republicans have proceeded as if nothing had happened. The substantial portion of Americans who rejected Obama on the basis of race in the first place weren’t likely to change their minds. If Obama gives way to the forces that are trying to dissuade him from nominating Hagel as Secretary of Defense the word will go forth that he can be rolled on other matters as well.

There’s a huge irony to this story: Many of the neocons and their allies in the media and think tanks who have been throwing everything they could in Hagel’s path are still seeking vengeance for the Democratic-controlled Senate ‘s rejection, in 1987, of the late Robert Bork, the rather irascible conservative appellate judge whom Ronald Reagan nominated for the Supreme Court. Liberal groups made his defeat a major cause and formed an alliance to make sure that in grueling hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee (Joe Biden in the chair). Bork was pummeled with questions about his record, his worldview, whatever they could come up with. (One eager opponent got a list of his video rentals, which led to legislation the next year protecting the privacy of such transactions.) In the end, the Judiciary Committee voted to reject his nomination; ordinarily that would have been the end of it but Bork requested that the Senate also vote, and his nomination was defeated 58-42.

Bitter Bork supporters came up with the new transitive verb—to “Bork” someone—meaning that a Democratic president’s nominee would be accorded the same treatment that Bork had received. Bork got a hearing and two votes. If Chuck Hagel’s opponents have their way, by comparison Robert Bork will have been treated handsomely.

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