Stephen M. Walt

What’s at stake in the Hagel affair

I don’t have much to add to my earlier comments on the manufactured controversy about Senator Chuck Hagel’s fitness for the post of secretary of defense. But I do encourage you to read the more recent comments by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Wright, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Avishai, all of whom make clear that Hagel is ...

Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images
Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

I don’t have much to add to my earlier comments on the manufactured controversy about Senator Chuck Hagel’s fitness for the post of secretary of defense. But I do encourage you to read the more recent comments by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Wright, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Avishai, all of whom make clear that Hagel is perfectly qualified for the position and that the people who are now trying to smear him deserve the same contempt with which former Senator Joseph McCarthy and other narrow-minded bullies are now viewed.  

Three aspects of the affair do merit brief comment, however. First, I’m baffled by the Obama administration’s handling of the whole business. What in God’s name were they trying to accomplish by floating Hagel’s name as the leading candidate without either a formal nomination or a vigorous defense? This lame-brained strategy gave Hagel’s enemies in the Israel lobby time to rally their forces and turn what would have been a routine appointment into a cause célèbre. If Obama backs down to these smear artists now, he’ll confirm the widespread suspicion that he’s got no backbone and he’ll lose clout both at home and abroad. If he goes ahead with the appointment (as he should), he’ll have to spend a bit of political capital and it will be a distraction from other pressing issues. And all this could have been avoided had the White House just kept quiet until it was ready to announce its nominee. So whatever the outcome, this episode hardly reflects well on the political savvy of Obama’s inner circle.

Second, let’s not lose sight of what is at stake here. Contrary to what some suggest, the choice of SecDef isn’t going to make any difference in U.S. policy toward Israel or the "peace process." Policy on those issues will be set by the White House and Congress, with AIPAC et al. breathing down both their necks. The Israeli government has no interest in a two-state solution, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to persuade Israel to rethink its present course, and the United States is incapable of mounting the sort of sustained pressure that might force both sides to compromise. Which means the two-state solution is dead, and it won’t matter whether Hagel gets the nod or not. The $3-4 billion annual aid package won’t be affected, and I’ll bet the United States continues to wield its U.N. Security Council veto whenever it is asked.

This appointment could affect U.S. policy toward Iran, insofar as Hagel’s been skeptical about the wisdom of using military force in the past. He’s hardly a dove or an appeaser, of course; he just recognizes that military force may not be a very good way to deal with this problem. (Well, duh.) If Obama wants to pursue diplomacy instead of preventive war — and he should — the combination of Hagel at Defense and Kerry at State would give him two respected, articulate, and persuasive voices to help him make that case. But if Obama were to decide that force was a good idea, neither Kerry nor Hagel would stand in his way. So in terms of overall Middle East policy in the next couple of years, this appointment may matter less than most people think.

The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free. Given America’s track record in the region in recent decades, you’d think a more open debate on U.S. policy would be just what the country needs, both for its own sake and for Israel’s. But because the case for the current "special relationship" of unconditional support is so weak, the last thing that hardliners like Bill Kristol or Elliot Abrams want is an open debate on that subject. If Hagel gets appointed, it means other people in Washington might realize they could say what they really think without fear that their careers will be destroyed. And once that happens, who knows where it might lead? It might even lead to a Middle East policy that actually worked! We wouldn’t want that now, would we?

At this point, if Obama picks someone other than Hagel, he won’t just be sticking a knife in the back of a dedicated public servant who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Obama will also be sending an unmistakable signal to future politicians, to young foreign policy wonks eager to rise in the Establishment, and to anyone who might hope to get appointed to an important position after 2016. He will be telling them that they either have to remain completely silent on the subject of U.S. Middle East policy or mouth whatever talking points they get from AIPAC, the Weekly Standard, or the rest of the Israel lobby, even though it is palpably obvious that the policies these groups have defended for years have been a disaster for the United States and Israel alike.  

Instead of having a robust and open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy inside official Washington, we will continue to have the current stilted, one-sided, and deeply dishonest discussion of our actions and interests in the region. And the long list of U.S. failures — the Oslo process, the settlements, the Iraq War, the rise of al Qaeda, etc. — will get longer still.

Over to you, Mr. President.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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