A bitter battle is brewing on Capitol Hill. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as the next defence secretary of the United States boils down to this litmus test: does he support Israel, understand the threat posed by Iran and is he sorry for past remarks that his critics say were borderline anti-Semitic? Even before President Barack Obama nominated Hagel this week for the top job at the Pentagon, critics of the former Republican senator from Nebraska had launched a full-throated campaign against the nomination.
As a senator in 2006, Hagel had infuriated the powerful pro-Israel lobby when he refused to sign a letter urging the European Union to designate the Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. His explanation of his decision only made matters worse.
In an interview with Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East peace negotiator, Hagel laid it out: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here (in the US Congress).... I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.” Hagel’s critics were irked by his description of the pro-Israel lobby as a Jewish one. Not all Jews support Israel, and many advocates for Israel are not Jewish.
“In the Arab and Muslim world, the terminology of a ‘Jewish lobby’ conjures up conspiratorial theories, exaggerated notions of Jewish power and, frankly, anti-Semitism,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organisation. “When you take that together with, ‘I’m not an Israeli senator,’ he obviously has a problem which we would like for him to address head on in an open and public way,” the rabbi adds.
The Emergency Committee for Israel has led the organised criticism of Hagel. It launched a website, www.chuckhagel.com, on which it urged visitors to tell senators: “Chuck Hagel is too extreme to be secretary of defense.”
The Senate must confirm Hagel before he can take up his new job across the Potomac River from the White House. Many fellow Republican senators have been vocal in their opposition to Hagel. Among them is 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who says he has “serious concerns about positions Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years.” However, McCain’s Democratic colleague, Carl Levin, who is Jewish, says Hagel is well qualified for the Pentagon job and that lawmakers would give “careful consideration” to his nomination.
Patricia Marcus, director of the Asia Pacific Institute at the American Jewish Committee, also predicts a thorough vetting by senators of Hagel’s record—to glean his vision for the future. “We want to make sure, based on his answers at the confirmation hearings, where he stands on Israel and his support for the (Obama) administration’s Iran policy,” she says.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful and well-funded pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, has been conspicuously absent from the line-up of Hagel’s critics. Its explanation for its silence is that it does not take positions on presidential nominations.
“The American Jewish community is split on Chuck Hagel’s nomination,” explains Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. “While large Jewish institutions are imposing a litmus test on the nomination, which requires unquestioning alignment with Israel’s right-wing government, Jewish Voice for Peace members have shown that a substantial portion of the Jewish community welcome daylight between US and Israeli policies.”
Hagel has been criticised by the left for making disparaging remarks about a gay American diplomat in 1998. He has apologised and the criticism died down amidst an acknowledgement that the discourse in America on gays has evolved dramatically over the past 15 years.
The choice of Hagel, a Republican, is by itself an unusual one for a Democratic president. Some see it as a smart one for that reason. “By nominating a Republican as his secretary of defence, Obama now has a tangible example of an act of bipartisanship on his part,” says a Senate staffer, speaking on background. “The Republicans in Congress have to decide: do they oppose a fellow Republican and appear less willing to compromise than the president?”
Hagel had quietly weathered the criticism until this week. Then, in an exclusive interview with the Lincoln Journal Star of Nebraska, he said he was astounded by the distortion of his record, an accurate assessment of which would prove he has been in “unequivocal, total support for Israel”. The fact is that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel”, he added.
In his time in the Senate, Hagel voted in favour of then president George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, but soon emerged as a critic of that war and famously broke with fellow Republicans to criticise the Bush administration’s surge of troops in Iraq. Yet, he has supported Obama on the war in Afghanistan and even a troop surge there, though his views on a potential showdown with Iran is tempered by the huge financial costs of America’s two recent wars.
Obama has had a rocky relationship with the Pentagon over his intent to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Gen Stanley McChrystal, the former top US commander there, writes about a “deficit of trust” between the White House and the Pentagon in his autobiography, released this month. The cause of this tension was a difference over troop levels: the general wanted more troops, the president less.
“The military is facing a greater challenge with the Obama administration when it comes to the residual (troop) presence in Afghanistan,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
While nominating Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, Obama praised him for his courage, judgement and willingness to speak his mind, “even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom”. Hagel’s critics, on the other hand, offered him a shot at redemption—through a symbolic conforming. “An apology would go a long way toward addressing the concerns of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Cooper.
Marcus of the AJC acknowledged that the former senator’s controversial comments were made many years ago. “Certainly, people do evolve,” she said. “We want to know where he stands today.”