Why did President Obama nominate Chuck Hagel for the position of Secretary of Defense?
First untenable answer: the former Nebraska senator is the best possible candidate for the job. Hagel has no experience at any level with a vast bureaucracy like the Pentagon. He has no special expertise in defense matters, unless brave service in the Vietnam War qualifies, and never distinguished himself in this area (or any other) during his 12 years in the Senate. By all reports his intellect is only middling, and he is reported to have a quick temper, which resulted in a rapid turnover among his Senate staff.
Second untenable answer: President Obama did not know of Hagel's past controversial positions and statements about such highly relevant issues such as Iran's nuclear program and Israel. Ha Ha. That record has been extensively combed over in the more than a month since the administration first floated the Hagel trial balloon. Even the liberal Washington Post, editorialized against the Hagel pick on December 19. Ira Forman, the Obama campaign's outreach director and former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, normally an administration lapdog, expressed grave misgivings about Hagel as early as 2007, when he was mulling a presidential run. In 2009, when Hagel was appointed to the President's Intelligence Advisory Committee, Forman said that if he were being appointed to a policy role, "we'd have real concerns," which is as close to criticism of the President as one will ever hear from Forman.
Besides being a regular in recent years on the American Muslim lecture circuit, lamenting the inordinate power of Israel over American foreign policy, Hagel was a complete outlier in his twelve years in the Senate on a variety of Middle East issues. He was consistently one of only a handful of senators who refused to sign letters of support for Israel. In 2001, he was only of only two senators to vote against extending the original Iranian sanctions bill, and in 2004, again one of two to vote against the renewal of the Libya-Iran sanctions act. He refused to sign a senatorial letter calling for the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. He is on the Board of Directors of Deutsche Bank, which is currently being investigated for assisting Iran in the circumvention of sanctions.
THUS THE ONLY CONCEIVABLE EXPLANATION for his nomination is that President Obama chose him precisely because he shares Hagel's views. The nomination, then, at least offers the benefit of clarification.
The President is also not adverse to the inevitable confirmation battle in the Senate. The nomination of Hagel, said Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) is very "in your face." Apparently the President seeks as confrontational a stance as possible towards congressional Republicans. His opening offer in the fiscal cliff negotiations -- $50 billion dollars in new stimulus spending and ceding congressional oversight over the debt ceiling to the president -- provoked open laughter from Senator Mitch McConnell. Equally conciliatory in tone, was his response to Speaker of the House John Boehner, when the latter asked what he would receive in exchange for agreement to $800,000,000 in new tax revenues: "You get nothing, John, that one's free for me."
The President is a competitive guy. He wants to show Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who is boss, and express his displeasure over the way Netanyahu went over his head in his speech to a joint session of Congress last year. Hagel's appointment conveys the message loud and clear.
Certainly, Hagel's supporters are spoiling for a fight. Not one has tried to make a case for Chuck Hagel on his merits. Rather they have defended him by the enemies he has attracted – supporters of Israel. The usual suspects have lined up for the opportunity to stick it to Israel: J Street, Peter Beinart, Thomas Friedman, Andrew Sullivan and a flock of "realists" – Stephen Walt, Brent Scowcroft, and Zbigniew Brzezenski. The "realism" of the latter group consists, as Jackson Diehl points out in the Monday Washington Post, of constantly counselling the limits of American power -- in Syria, Iraq, and against Iran -- with the single exception of the Israel-Palestinian dispute, where they urge the United States to impose a solution on the parties by fiat.
THE MAIN DAMAGE from the Hagel nomination has already been done, regardless of whether he is confirmed (the likely outcome). That damage consists of the signal the nomination sends about the President's own policy preferences. The Iranians will certainly read his appointment as a presidential statement of willingness to live with containment of a nuclear Iran – Hagel's position -- despite President Obama's repeated rejection of that position during the 2012 campaign. And who can blame them?
If it turns out, as Dennis Ross continually assures us, that the President is determined to use military force if there is no other way to stop the Iranian nuclear program, then at the very least, the Hagel appointment will have made a military resolution of the issue more likely by misleading the Iranians.
JEWISH OPPONENTS of the nomination would be wise, however, to leave it to others to carry the ball, and not make an issue of Hagel's alleged anti-Semitism. His policy positions are sufficiently far out of the mainstream for the argument to be made on that basis alone.
Proving what is in Hagel's heart is difficult at best, and trying to do so will have the inevitable effect of turning the debate into one over whether the Jews are attempting to silence criticism of Israel with McCarthyite smears of anti-Semitism.
True, there are grounds to conclude that Hagel is not a philo-Semite. His reference to the "Jewish lobby," (instead of by the more politically correct term the Israel Lobby) and its power to intimidate on Capitol Hill is troubling. At a minimum, it suggests that he cannot understand America's support of Israel except in terms of ethnic politics.
More problematic was his staunch opposition to keeping open the USO Center for American sailors in Haifa, where the Sixth Fleet docks, when he headed the USO. By all accounts, the Haifa USO was one of the most popular with U.S. sailors and also one of the most financially viable. Marsha Hatleman of JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) claims that Hagel told her, "Let the Jews pay for it."
Hagel's past remarks about "aggressive" homosexuals indicate that at the very least he did not learn all the rules of modern political correctness growing up in Nebraska, a state in which Jews constitute less than .33% of the population. He recently apologized to homosexuals, however, out of recognition that, unlike the Jews, they could torpedo his nomination.
Still the American Jewish community has no interest in letting Abe Foxman of the ADL drag it into a repeat of the fight over Mel Gibson's The Passion, which will only add to stereotypes of pushy and hyper-sensitive Jews. Foxman needs to keep fears of anti-Semitism fresh to maintain the ADL's $50,000,000 annual budget. But American Jewry does not share that interest.
American Jews, like every other American citizen, have the right to make their voices heard on the Hagel nomination. But they should not make the issue a Jewish one. Hagel's views on Iran's nuclear program should be of greater concern to all Americans than those on Israel, since he would oversee an American strike that he is on record strongly opposing.
AIPAC has wisely retained a low profile on the Hagel nomination to date, no doubt out of recognition that there will be plenty of senators to lead the charge. It has no interest in confronting the President head on, especially in a battle likely to be lost. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see how the 70% of American Jews who voted for President Obama explain the Hagel nomination to themselves.