Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Chuck Hagel An Extremist?

Today the "Emergency Committee for Israel" is sounding alarms in the New York Times, where it has taken out a full-page ad to inveigh against the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become Secretary of Defense. It asks and simultaneously answers the question, "Who is Chuck Hagel, President Obama's anti-Israel nominee for Secretary of Defense?" It urges readers to call Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand to "put country ahead of party" and reject Hagel. The ad is good for the Times, which has been struggling to maintain ad revenue for several years and the paper can only hope that future Obama nominees will arouse similar consternation among the neocons, but it represents a blatant attempt to stir up hysteria among New York Jewish voters about both Hagel and Obama. What we are seeing is the emergence of the kind of self-indulgent behavior that neoconservatives routinely denounce when other minority groups demand special attention and favors in the name of multiculturalism.

There can be no doubting that the Emergency Committee—what, by the way, is the emergency?—can draw upon lurid quotes to tar Hagel's reputation. Rep. Eliot Engel, for example, is quoted as saying "there is some kind of an endemic hostility toward Israel." Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board has opposed Hagel, charging that his views "fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term—and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him." The Post's Jennifer Rubin minutes that "Hagel is the personification of 'out of the mainstream' thinking on Israel and Iran." She likens him to Ron Paul and, for good measure, calls his views "noxious." You start to get the feeling that she might not like Hagel.

This is weird stuff. Hagel's voting record in the Senate appears to be solidly conservative, not that of a leftist. For the past few years since he stepped down from the Senate, he has been a member of the Washington, DC foreign policy circuit. At most he has mused about whether more diplomacy might not prompt concessions from Tehran and remarked about the alleged power of the "Jewish lobby," as he put it. There's no reason it should be taboo to believe that another path other than military power should be employed against Iran. The fact is that the Obama administration is already putting the regime in Iran under intense strain with its sanctions program.

But this has not prevented Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elliott Abrams from concluding on National Public Radio that Hagel is "frankly an anti-Semite." A few days later, in the National Review Online, Abrams slightly qualified his remarks. Abrams wrote,

the press has carried several articles now suggesting some sort of a problem between him and the Jewish community, and that is the issue I have raised. In a Monday article in The Weekly Standard, I concluded that “one purpose of confirmation hearings should be to find out” whether this problem existed.

These are extremely serious matters, to be sure. Even the suggestion that there is something worth asking about here should never be made lightly. Various responses have called my allusion to this subject a distraction, a smear, and worse—predictably resorting to far more awful language to describe me personally. So why did I say a problem may exist? Because just as it would be a mistake to raise this entire issue lightly, it is a mistake to give Senator Hagel a pass on the record as it stands without further assessment by the Senate. To advance the argument, I will avoid the term anti-Semitism, because it can mean too many different, particular things, and does not help illuminate the nature of the issue I discussed.

In The Weekly Standard, I noted the remarkable comments by Nebraska Jewish community leaders about the coldness and indifference Hagel displayed to them. As I explained, the long-time editor of the Omaha Jewish Press said Hagel “didn’t give a damn about the Jewish community or any of our concerns.” How is it possible simply to ignore a comment like that?

Actually, it's pretty easy. I'm sorry if a newspaper editor in Omaha felt neglected by Senator Hagel—a not uncommon sentiment among journalists who often resent the politicians they have to cover—but what does that comment actually mean and what precise bearing does it have upon his qualifications to become Secretary of Defense? There is no "problem" that needs to be explored. Nor are these "serious matters." Quite the contrary. They are risible, which is why Abrams' language is as empty as it is portentous. The blunt fact is that in lieu of any hard evidence about the perfidy of Hagel, Abrams is proposing a senatorial fishing expedition that would end up submerging in a sea of innuendo any rational debate about the future direction of American foreign policy.

Image: Flickr/David Williss. CC BY 2.0.