The Bogus Case Against Chuck Hagel


I'm late to this but want to weigh in, about a tawdry aspect of DC politics that I hope has finally gone so far that it will impeach itself. I'm referring to the "bigot" accusations about former Senator Chuck Hagel (official photo at right).

One of the strongest arguments in favor of Susan Rice's (now-withdrawn) candidacy for Secretary of State was the hypocrisy of the ostensible arguments against her. The same Senators McCain and Graham who had no problem approving Condoleezza Rice as Secretary eight years ago, despite the mis-information she had conveyed about WMD in Iraq, were now righteously dead-set against Susan Rice because of the (vastly less consequential) mis-information she had conveyed about the Benghazi attack. If you've forgotten how amazing these contortions were, I direct you to, of course, Jon Stewart.

But that's over, and the Secretary-of-State presumptive, John Kerry, is well qualified for the job. Now the next delegitimization fight is coming into view. It concerns Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, who appears to be Barack Obama's favorite as the next Secretary of Defense.

You can argue in favor of Chuck Hagel for this role: a bipartisan pick, combat-veteran cred, cautious realist-centrist record over the years. Or you can argue that someone else would be better: perhaps Democrats should promote their own Democratic national-security team; others have worked more closely with Obama; maybe Hagel's worldview has grown more dovish than Obama's, and so on. That's all fine.

What is poisonous, and should be resisted, is the effort to rule out Hagel through the bogus charge that he is anti-Israel or, worse, anti-Semitic. This campaign is charmingly being led by William Kristol (also here) and others at Kristol's Standard, with predictable backup from the WSJ op-ed page, the WaPo's right-wing blogger, and its often-neocon main editorial page. Incredibly, this is part of the Post's ed page case against Hagel: " 'The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,' [Hagel has said]. 'So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.' " It's amazing that the paper offers the quote as if it discredited Hagel. In fact it is an argument in his favor, and it echoes what, for instance, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has said about a military budget that is twice as high as it was ten years ago.

But the nastiest comments have been about Hagel's views on Israel. The WSJ delicately puts the point this way, under the headline "Chuck Hagel's Jewish Problem":
Prejudice--like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations--has an olfactory element. When Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who is now a front-runner to be the next secretary of Defense, carries on about how "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," the odor is especially ripe. 
And, just as subtly from Kristol today, "Hagel also has a record of consistent hostility to Israel over the last decade."

There's an olfactory element here all right. It's the stench of trying to remove someone whose policies you dislike with the damning accusation that underneath it all is outright bigotry. One of the big, supposedly damaging bits of evidence against Hagel is his having said to the author of a book on US-Israel relations:
"I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator... I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that."

Of course, that is what any United States senator should say -- whether the other country in  question is Israel, Britain, Germany, Canada, Japan, or any other allied but different power. And any Israeli, British, German, etc official should and would put the interests of his or her country first.

The one encouraging part of this episode is the stiff response from people who are in some cases agnostic* about Hagel's merits as SecDef but who all hate the "odor" of this attack. See the peeved tone, and the detailed rebuttal, of reactions from the otherwise non-homogenous group of Marsha Cohen, John Judis, Dana Milbank, Peter BeinartDavid Weigel, Andrew Sullivan, Nicholas Kristof**, and Steven Walt. [Update: and Robert Merry and Emily Hauser and Clyde Prestowitz and Steve Clemons and Ali Gharib.]

Four years ago, a just-elected President Obama gave in to a similar campaign to remove Chas Freeman from consideration as head of the National Intelligence Council. He was wrong to do so. Obama has learned about his opposition since then, and is in a much stronger position. Whether or not Hagel is the person he really wants for the job, he should make clear that he's not being steered by these bully-boy tactics.
* For instance, Judis about Hagel: "I can't confidently say that he would make a good or great Secretary of Defense, but I can say with confidence that Hagel is a honorable man who served with distinction as a senator and that his foreign policy views, including his positions on Israel and its American lobby, are, if anything, a reason to support rather than oppose his nomination."

**From a Tweet today: "Totally disagree with this WashPost editorial criticizing Chuck Hagel for defense:  ... Hagel would be excellent."
UPDATES: 1) As nearly all the items linked to above point out, Hagel was wrong to use the phrase "the Jewish lobby" in one instance, rather than "the Israeli lobby," which includes Jewish and non-Jewish members, notably large numbers of evangelical Christians. But Aaron David Miller, the person who quoted Hagel that way, rejects the "odor" interpretation. As Peter Beinart pointed out:
Aaron Miller, the well-respected former peace processor from a distinguished Cleveland Jewish family who quotes Hagel as saying that ["Jewish lobby"], also calls him "a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values." Or that Miller himself writes that "political pressures have taken a serious toll by conditioning a key branch of the American government [Congress] to be reflexively pro-Israel." Maybe Miller has a Jewish problem too?

2) The Washington Post editorial opposes Hagel for being too much of an anti-defense leftie, especially about Iran, rather than explicitly for being anti-Israel. But its out-of-the-blue quality -- Hagel has not even been nominated -- and strained logic are why I mentioned it in this sequence.

UPDATE^Update A former Republican Senate staffer writes:
I agree about Hagel, without qualification.  

I wonder about how good a Secretary of Defense he would make, on account of his recent experience so remote from the massive administrative burden and unique political environment of the Sec Def job.  But unlike with Susan Rice, there is not a clearly superior candidate from what I can see.  

The particular issue here is that SecDef has vastly more policy autonomy than almost any other Cabinet official.  If Hagel's views really did diverge from Obama's on an important issue, it would be very difficult.  But with that caveat, I really wish Obama would just go ahead and nominate his candidate for this and other jobs, and suspend his instinct to look for confirmations without controversy.