But for Stephens, even the Nebraskan’s statement that "I support Israel" is an opening for attack. "This," writes the Journal polemicist, "is the sort of thing one often hears from people who treat Israel as the Mideast equivalent of a neighborhood drunk who, for his own good, needs to be put in the clink to sober him up."
This is classic straw-man polemics—distorting or misrepresenting the meaning of an opponent’s comments in order more easily to pummel the guy. A more palatable approach would be to take Hagel’s statement of support for Israel at face value, then argue that the honorable gentleman’s view of how to support Israel is misguided for particular reasons, which then could be—for the benefit of his readers’ enlightenment—explained.
But it seems that Stephens and others like him really don’t want a dispassionate discussion in America about Israel that might raise questions about whether Likud Party positions are the only legitimate outlook for Americans—notwithstanding the fact that many in Israel strongly oppose those hardline views and policies. Thus does Stephens, for example, dismiss Hagel’s expressed concern about Israel and America becoming increasingly isolated on the Palestinian matter. He writes: "It’s a political Deep Thought worthy of Saturday Night Live’s Jack Handey."
This is frivolous polemics, dismissing Hagel’s concern airily while refusing to engage it. But Stephens’s most revealing passage includes the sentiment that he almost hopes Obama will indeed nominate Hagel for defense secretary. "It would confirm a point I made in a column earlier this year, which is that Mr. Obama is not a friend of Israel." He seems to be saying that he loves any excuse for his characteristic high dudgeon more than he is concerned about saving Israel from the likes of Chuck Hagel and Barack Obama. That’s a funny way to craft an argument against a Hagel nomination.
Let’s be clear about what this is all about. Political disputants such as Kristol and Stephens seem to want U.S. policy to hew to the Israeli line without question or contention, which means Israel would have carte blanche over any U.S. policy involving Israel. No nation has that, and no nation should. That’s essentially what Hagel is saying, and to suggest this view constitutes a disqualification for high office—or an anti-Israel prejudice—assaults the sanctity of American discourse. After all, why should a U.S. defense secretary have to maintain lockstep with the Israeli prime minister on all matters when most of his own cabinet members disagree with his governmental direction, as Netanyahu’s cabinet does his?
Obama may or may not nominate Hagel to the Pentagon job. But whomever he selects, and for whatever reason, it would be unfortunate if he let such polemical assaults as those that emanated from Kristol and Stephens to stay his hand. Chuck Hagel is an honorable man who served his country with rare bravery in Vietnam and served it further with distinction as a U.S. senator. And, if he can be blackballed by pro-Israel forces bent on thwarting debate in America about the country’s complex relationship with Israel, then perhaps the power of the Israel lobby and its efforts at intimidation have become as problematical as critics suggest.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.