Chuck Hagel and the Neocon Smear Machine

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Reports that President Obama may nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense haven't been well received at The Weekly Standard. In pre-emptively opposing the nomination, the neoconservative magazine is employing what you might call a two-tiered strategy: the low road and the lower road.

The low road is taken by the Standard's editor, Bill Kristol. He writes that Hagel is "anti-Israel," and then follows this assertion with a series of facts that don't corroborate it. Of course, as Kristol surely knows, "anti-Israel" is taken by some people as code for "anti-Semitic." As for those Weekly Standard readers who don't interpret the term that way -- well, that's what the lower road is for. A separate story written by a Standard staffer quotes a top Republican Senate aide saying flat out that Hagel is anti-Semitic.

If you're wondering who that aide is, I have bad news for you: The Standard doesn't tell us, so we have no way of being sure that this person even exists. To students of American history, this tactic -- conveying vicious accusations while cloaking their source -- may sound familiar, because it's the way Joseph McCarthy used to operate. What it's not is the way a magazine with integrity operates. But I guess it shouldn't surprise us, given some of the Weekly Standard's previous behavior.

Meanwhile, Kristol's ideological kin are getting into the spirit of things. The Washington Post's neocon blogger, Jennifer Rubin, quotes Abe Foxman saying Hagel's views "border on anti-Semitism."

In case you don't know who Abe Foxman is, he's the guy who believes that, though Jews can build synagogues wherever they want, and Christians can build churches wherever they want, Muslims shouldn't build mosques wherever they want. (This may sound like a bigoted position, but it's grounded in respect for relatives of 9/11 victims, whose anguish, says Foxman, "entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.")

The other thing you should know about Foxman is that he's head of the Anti-Defamation League. So far as I can tell, that means he's opposed to defamation unless the target is (1) a Muslim who aspires to build a mosque in the wrong place; or (2) someone whose views on Israel don't meet with his approval -- in which case he'll personally do the defaming.

What is the evidence that Chuck Hagel is anti-Semitic, or at least borderline anti-Semitic? Apparently he once said, "The political reality is that ... the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [on Capitol Hill]." The Weekly Standard's anonymous "top Republican Senate aide" is quoted as calling this "the worst kind of anti-Semitism" because it means Hagel "believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy."

Actually, it doesn't mean that. It means what it says: Hagel believes that AIPAC, like the NRA, is powerful enough to sometimes intimidate legislators. Now, it does follow that AIPAC and the NRA influence policy in their domains, but not that they "control" it. If this "top Republican Senate aide" doubts that AIPAC or the NRA influence policy via intimidation, that's just more reason to wonder whether such a person actually exists. I don't see how you could work in the Senate and be sentient and be oblivious to such facts.

The other complaint about Hagel's quote, expressed by neoconservative Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, is that Hagel used the term "Jewish lobby" instead of "Israel lobby". This is actually a valid criticism, because the Israel lobby does in fact include lots of Christian Zionists, and for that matter doesn't include lots of Jews. On the other hand, "Jewish lobby" was once the standard term for what is now called the Israel lobby (especially back when the term was closer to being accurate, before Christian Zionism became a big political force). And it doesn't seem to me that it's an indictable offense for a guy Hagel's age to have on one occasion used this once-accepted term -- especially in light of the fact that he subsequently acknowledged it was the wrong term to use.

At any rate, this isolated Hagel quote certainly doesn't justify Stephens' clear insinuation that Hagel is anti-Semitic. ("Prejudice ... has an olfactory element," writes Stephens, and in Hagel's case "the odor is especially ripe.") Neither does any other "evidence" Stephens adduces -- such as the fact that not many Jews live in Nebraska, the state Hagel represented as a senator.

I'll leave further debunking of the anti-Semitism charge against Hagel to (Jewish Zionist) Peter Beinart at Open Zion. Meanwhile I'll underscore his fellow Open Zion blogger Ali Gharib's point that it's ironic for Hagel to be pilloried for saying that politicians are intimidated by a pro-Israel lobby -- when those doing the pillorying bear a striking resemblance to a pro-Israel lobby trying to intimidate a politician. (Note the headline on that Weekly Standard piece: "Senate Aide: 'Send Us Hagel and We Will Make Sure Every American Knows He Is an Anti-Semite'" I don't suppose that's an attempt to intimidate anyone?)

I should have put "pro-Israel" in quotes, because, as I've said again and again, people who are "pro-Israel" in a right-wing sense of the term favor policies that are, in my view, bad for Israel. And that's especially true of the group I'm talking about now: not neocons in general (many of whom are honorable people who fight clean and don't make ad hominem attacks), but the subset of neocons (Kristol, Rubin, Stephens, et. al.) who try not just to counter arguments they disagree with but to stigmatize the people who make them. This subset of neocons -- the neocon smear machine -- has long prevented an open and honest American discussion of Israel, and as a result America, the country with the most influence over Israel, has indulged Israel's worst, most self-destructive tendencies.

The most obviously self-destructive tendency -- the endless building of illegal settlements in the West Bank -- reached a kind of culmination this year, as the greenlighting of the infamous E1 settlement project made it clear to all but the most deluded observers that a two-state solution will never happen. Which means sooner or later we'll almost certainly wind up with a one-state solution -- either a one-state solution that preserves Zionism but makes Israel literally an apartheid state or a one-state solution that marks the end of Zionism.

The latter scenario wouldn't necessarily be a disaster. It's possible for Arabs and Jews to live side by side in peace as citizens of a single state that encompasses the occupied territories. But it will take some work, and in any event it won't be welcomed by the people whose defaming of Israel's critics has done so much to make this the only likely alternative to apartheid.

Over the past year, as I've written about Israel critically and gotten a milder version of the kind of blowback Hagel is getting, my view of the people generating it has changed. I used to think that all the "anti-Israel" and "anti-Semitism" charges were just cynical smears, and I still think some of them are. But I also think some of them come from people who genuinely believe that any severe critic of Israel speaks out of malice. These people are blinded by their passions, and the fact that their smears are wild and unfounded doesn't mean they're insincere.

Still, these smears have been hugely counterproductive from a truly pro-Zionist standpoint. What you're seeing now is one of the final desperate spasms of a group that has already helped destroy the thing it loves, and will probably destroy a few other things before finally, like Joseph McCarthy, destroying itself and receding mercifully into the pages of history.

Postscript: Already, Hagel has been defended by a strikingly diverse array of voices, including (in addition to people I mentioned in the piece) Dana Milbank of the Washington Post; John Judis of The New Republic; Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast; Scott McConnell and Daniel Larison of The American Conservative; the progressive pro-Israel group J Street; the Center for American Progress blog ThinkProgress; Stephen Walt of Foreign Policy and Harvard; Steve Clemons of The Atlantic and the New America Foundation; Jim Fallows of The Atlantic; Emily Hauser of Open Zion; Marsha B. Cohen and Jim Lobe at LobeblogNicholas Kristof of The New York Times; Clyde Prestowitz, formerly US Trade Representative in a Republican administration, in Foreign Policy; Robert Merry at The National Interest; former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer; and former U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller (author of the book in which Hagel's "Jewish Lobby" quote appears). Update: Also, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Update, 12/20: A bunch of former US ambassadors--including five former ambassadors to Israel--have now written a letter saying Hagel has "impeccable" credentials to be secretary of defense: Nicholas Burns, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador to NATO and Greece; Ryan Crocker, former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan; Edward Djerejian, former Ambassador to Israel and Syria; William Harrop, former Ambassador to Israel; Daniel Kurtzer, former Ambassador to Israel and Egypt; Sam Lewis, former Ambassador to Israel; William H. Luers, former Ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia; Thomas R. Pickering, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador to Israel and Russia; Frank G. Wisner, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Ambassador to Egypt and India.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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