The Assault on Chuck Hagel

The straw man polemics of the Nebraskan's critics shouldn't stop Obama from nominating him.

It didn’t take long for the assault on Chuck Hagel to commence, based on the powerfully held attitude of some in the journalistic establishment and elsewhere that he is insufficiently supportive of Israel. The aim is simple and clear—to generate enough political fear in the consciousness of President Obama that he refrains from nominating Hagel to the job of secretary of defense. Barring that, they want to thwart Senate confirmation.

The assault began with The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, who dismissed the former Nebraska senator and decorated Vietnam veteran as "out on the fringes" because he has questioned some Israeli policies, defied the Israel lobby on various matters, and questioned the wisdom of preventive war against Iran. According to Kristol, the test for Obama on this one is stark: "Is he serious about having Israel’s back? Is he serious about preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons?" In other words, a Hagel nomination would expose Obama as indifferent to Israel’s fate, given Hagel’s "anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides."

Kristol seems particularly exercised over the endorsement Hagel received from Harvard’s Stephen Walt— "junior partner of the better-known Israel hater John Mearsheimer," in Kristol’s back-handed description—who said such a nomination would be a "smart move," in part because of Hagel’s independent stance over the years toward Israel’s right-wing Likud Party. Kristol dismissed Walt as being one of those "anti-Israel propagandists."

Steve Walt can take care of himself, as he did with considerable aplomb in his regular Foreign Policy blog. But Chuck Hagel, awaiting word on whether Obama truly does intend to nominate him for Defense, must remain mum in the face of such attacks. And none is likely to get more harsh and mean-spirited than the blast that emanated on Tuesday from the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, who demonstrated anew just how emotional he can get on matters involving Israel.

Consider his tone. He begins by suggesting Hagel’s views cast off a kind of ideological stink. Of course, he uses somewhat more polite language, but it comes down to the same thing. "Prejudice," he writes, cleverly, "—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element." And when Hagel had the temerity to suggest that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Congress, writes Stephens, "the odor is especially ripe."

He goes on to cite specific instances in which this stench particularly offends his nostrils. One is the fact that Hagel used the term "Jewish lobby" rather than the more appropriate "Israel lobby." He explains: "No lesser authorities on the subject than John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of 'The Israel Lobby,' have insisted the term Jewish lobby is 'inaccurate and misleading.'" That’s because, as he notes, the lobby includes non-Jews while many Jewish Americans don’t support its more hardline positions. True enough. But two points are worth pondering. First, it’s close to hilarious to see Stephens support his arguments by quoting Mearsheimer and Walt, whose work he has attacked as "anti-Semitic in effect" and "incredibly dumb."

More telling is Stephens’s effort to make so much of what was in essence a minor lapse on Hagel’s part. If this does indeed generate for Stephens an odor that is especially ripe, one must wonder about either the acuity of his olfactory faculties or his general perspective on things.

Or consider, says Stephens, Hagel’s use of the word "intimidates." This suggests the Israel lobby has "powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent." Well, not exactly. It suggests that America’s pro-Israel forces pack significant political clout—reflected, for example, in what happened when Obama in 2011 suggested that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over occupied lands should begin with 1967 borders and proceed to possible land swaps (a restatement of U.S. policy for some four decades). First, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went before the pro-Israel group AIPAC in Washington to spurn that approach, to thunderous approval from the audience. Then he reiterated that position with steely demeanor in a White House meeting with Obama—and afterward in meeting reporters. Then he went before a joint meeting of Congress and, with the galleries filled with pro-Israel political donors, received repeated standing ovations, many instigated by elaborate arm motions from Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic party chairwoman, who selected the prime minister’s most controversial statements for particular attention. Writer Peter Beinart, whose devotion to Israel is beyond doubt (though challenged by critics), called the whole thing "one of the most extraordinary humiliations of a president by a foreign leader in American history"—and all abetted and applauded by pro-Israel forces in America.

Now that’s intimidation. It certainly wasn’t invisible, and it was malevolent only if you despise the rough-and-tumble of American democracy. But for many Americans it was disgusting, and there’s no reason their disgust shouldn’t be considered a legitimate political sentiment in our democratic system. Likewise, there’s no political legitimacy in seeking to drum Chuck Hagel out of the American mainstream and to portray him as some kind of nefarious figure bent on letting Israel go down the tubes.

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.