Criticism of Chuck Hagel on Israel is empty and misguided

Michael Petrou on Obama’s nominee for secretary of defence

by Michael Petrou

Nati Harnik/AP

Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of defence, is a former Republican senator, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and, according to some of his critics, unfit to lead America’s military because of his supposedly anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic views.

Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, informs readers that prejudice, like cooking, has an “olfactory element” element to it, and the smell around Hagel is particularly ripe.

Hagel once said the “Jewish lobby” intimidates a lot of people in Washington. Stephens condemns this on the basis that the pro-Israel lobby is not exclusively Jewish, and because Jews are not a monolithic political bloc. Fair enough–but Stephens’ suggestion a few paragraphs later that Jewish Americans might want to re-consider their support for Obama because he’s no friend of Israel is built on the same assumption of Jewish groupthink.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham meanwhile says Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of defence towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history.” The Emergency Committee for Israel, a lobby group, has taken out television ads claiming Hagel is “not a responsible option.”

These criticisms are largely rubbish. On issues that really matter to Israelis — military aid, for example — Hagel has been consistently supportive. The Washington Post has compiled a list of Hagel’s most controversial statements on Israel. Finding proof in them that he’s some sort of closet Israel-hater requires some determined eye squinting.

More importantly, this focus on Hagel and Israel distracts from some of his views that will likely be more consequential if his nomination is approved.

Chuck Hagel is neither a neo-con Republican, nor a liberal interventionist. He’d prefer to keep American troops at home and let the world sort out its own problems. He didn’t support intervention in Libya, even when it appeared pro-government forces were prepared to slaughter their civilian opponents. Obama described Hagel as someone who knows that war is “something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”

Hagel did vote in favour of the Iraq war. And before that he co-sponsored a bill that would have authorized sending American ground troops to Kosovo.

But Hagel’s support for the war in Iraq was fleeting. He, like Obama, opposed the troop surge into the country, calling it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in the country since Vietnam.” He was wrong. The surge saved Iraq from completely falling apart and allowed Obama to withdraw American troops in a manner that didn’t reek of defeat and abandonment.

Obama himself said the surge in Iraq “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” This may have influenced his decision to pour thousands of troops into Afghanistan at the beginning of his presidency. Hagel opposed this, too. Fortunately for Hagel’s political prospects, Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan didn’t last that long. The President and Hagel are now in agreement that leaving Afghanistan is more important than helping to build it into something that might survive our departure.

Hagel has been called soft on Iran. He has argued against the use of military force in Iran, but changed his mind and now believes it is a viable option of last resort. He believes Iran should be engaged. So did Obama, years ago. It didn’t work, and the President has now moved on to ever-tighter sanctions. Hagel opposes these, which shows a lack of judgment — especially as sanctions, if successful, would make a military strike on Iran less likely.

Hagel has also argued for engagement with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the Gaza Strip. This, too, has earned him scorn from the right. There is a case to be made for shunning the group. It blows up buses, oppresses Palestinians under its control, sends rockets against Israeli civilians, and is a barrier to any hopes for a negotiated two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. The credibility Hamas would gain from any sort of contact with the United States would bolster it, to the detriment of Fatah, the more moderate group that governs Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

Yet the fact remains that Israel has negotiated with Hamas when it considered it necessary. And according to a Hamas member I interviewed in 2008, the group had also been in contact with officials from the U.S. State Department during the George W. Bush presidency. This isn’t to say that engaging Hamas is wise — only that partisans who condemn the idea can be hypocrites.

Chuck Hagel is what’s often called a realist. I don’t particularly like the term because it implies a hard-headed wisdom that too often justifies American isolationism in the face of potential humanitarian disasters, such as during the uprising in Libya; and because I don’t think withdrawing from places like Afghanistan and hoping doing so won’t come back to haunt us, again, is all that realistic. But in this sense, Hagel’s views are aligned with Obama’s. The President believes America’s ability to shape the world is limited. Hagel isn’t going to counsel him otherwise.




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Criticism of Chuck Hagel on Israel is empty and misguided

  1. Can we criticize him for being against abortion in cases of rape or incest? I heard from someone that sort of view was a political career show stopper held only by neanderthal knuckle draggers, and to espouse those type of views was the worst kind of #WarOnWomen.

    Or do we ignore that sort of thing now because he’s Obama’s chosen one?

    • Definitely a matter of concern. Fortunately the American executive does not also sit in the legislature, so his chances of voting on the issue is a lot smaller. In other portfolios it could be a deal-breaker.

      Of course you have to ask are there any acceptable candidates for the position who aren’t out to lunch on abortion? Maybe it would be harder to install them.

  2. I am an Israeli jew and I am sick and tired of all this unceasing noise going around and whether he is friendly to Israel or not. To be or not to be, that is not the question. The real one is whether he is going to be good for his fellow Americans. That’s it.

    • Great comment !! You must be one Israeli Jew with a “big balls” !!
      Regards

  3. I agree with abeleehane comment!!
    You hit a “bingo” !!
    Regards to all!!

  4. Avraham Foxman only wants him to change his name to Chuck Bagel as an act of contrition.

  5. ” the President has now moved on to ever-tighter sanctions. Hagel opposes these, which shows a lack of judgment — especially as sanctions, if successful, would make a military strike on Iran less likely.”

    First, how do we measure “if successful”? Presumably, “success” means they won’t do something credible sources like the CIA and former Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet officials have already insisted they aren’t doing anyway – seek to build a bomb. Bibi Netanyahu jumps up and down claiming the sky is falling and we’re supposed to believe him? Watch how certain he was about Dubya’s WMD’s that weren’t: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpQdg4D78Jc .

    Sarkozy was absolutely correct regarding Binyamin’s truthfulness. Moreover, what about Israel’s HUNDREDS of nukes? That country has religious whackos in positions of power every bit as dangerous as Iran’s most extreme mullahs, if not more so. Don’t take my word for it. Search any Israeli newspaper site (e.g. haaretz.com or jpost.com) for Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s teachings that we goyim were put here on Earth only to serve the Jews (his words). This man is the spiritual leader of the right wing Shas political party in Israel and any of his settler adherents could easily rise to power in Israel and get their finger on the nuclear trigger.

    Second, SANCTIONS are far more devastating than flat out war. The sanctions against Iraq crushed the civilian population, directly leading to the needless death of at least 500,000 CHILDREN! I say “al least” because after the half million mark, they stopped counting! Dropping a couple of nukes on Iran would be more merciful than the crushing sanctions, not to mention honest as to the policy’s intent and outcome. They should have been left alone to develop nuclear energy capability, subject to the IAEA inspections they have always allowed, as a signatory to NPT, unlike rogue Israel that refuses to sign, let alone permit inspections.

    The fact of the matter is Iran is enduring sanctions as a continuation of a long term policy intent on cementing Israel’s military supremacy in the ME. That’s ALL THERE IS TO IT! The constant sabre rattling and threats against Iran are far more likely to push them toward nuclear arms. Their example is North Korea. They HAVE the bomb and the USA doesn’t dare invade them.

    • agreed. Israel is strong enough now that it doesn’t need anyone’s support.

  6. “But Hagel’s support for the war in Iraq was fleeting. He, like Obama, opposed the troop surge into the country, calling it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in the country since Vietnam.” He was wrong. The surge saved Iraq from completely falling apart and allowed Obama to withdraw American troops in a manner that didn’t reek of defeat and abandonment.”

    You are either a very ignorant or ridiculously biased to beleive that american invasion of iraq and stealing their oil was a good for that country.

  7. Most of the controversy is beside the point insofar as State, not Defense, defines US foreign policy. But apparently American Jews are aghast that Chuck Hagel labors under the misguided belief that “defense” primarily means defense of the USA instead of Israel.

  8. If Chuck was wrong about what he said, i disagree 100% The people who run the media ( You know who You are) love to take polls! So why not poll congress and the senate and ask them if they support Israel? I would be willing to bet that if they did not know why the poll was being taken before hand. The result would be 100% that they do support Israel. Thus proving within a shadow of a dought that The Jewish lobby controls American politics!

    Why do i say this, cause you can’t get 20 people in this country to agree on anything, let alone hundreds of politicians!!

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