Reality Check

Is Chuck Hagel Toast?

The attacks on Obama’s would-be Pentagon chief are scurrilous. And yes, Virginia, there is an Israel lobby -- but it’s neither Jewish nor invincible.

Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

In 2006, I interviewed Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, for a book I was writing on America and the Arab-Israeli negotiations. Quotes from that interview have since become part of a campaign opposing his putative nomination as President Barack Obama’s next secretary of defense.

That debate and discussion has by any standard been a pretty depressing affair. At the same time, it’s a fascinating reflection of both the state of our domestic politics and of attitudes and views toward Israel and Obama.

National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh reported Sunday that "the White House is now signaling that it may soon puncture Hagel’s hopes." We’ll see. But since we’re in the middle of a movie that could have any number of endings, let me extract a few of the enduring issues highlighted by this affair that I find both troubling and intriguing.

Hagel’s an anti-Semite? This charge — casually leveled at Hagel because he asserted to me that the "Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Congress — is shameful and scurrilous.

Sadly, accusing someone of hating Jews in general because they criticize Israeli government policy in particular is all too common. In some cases, perhaps it’s even true. But not in Hagel’s. Hagel spoke to me about shared values and the importance of Israeli security too. And those who have known him over the years, including many of my former colleagues, all believe he feels the same. Independent and at times sharply critical of Israeli policies, yes; someone who has endemic hostility toward Israel, as Rep. Eliot Engel recently charged, let alone whose views are borderline anti-Semitic, no. I like the way Richard Robinson, a Norfolk, Nebraska steel distributor who’s Jewish and considers Hagel a very close friend, put it: "I think that anyone who insinuates he’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is full of crap."

What about that Jewish lobby? What about the use of the term Jewish lobby and Hagel’s notion that senators and representatives are reluctant to cross AIPAC? As Israeli political columnist Chemi Shalev points out in his blog post on the matter, Israelis routinely use the word Jewish lobby as synonymous with AIPAC.

Anybody who’s been in Washington and not in a coma knows that AIPAC is one of the most effective, well managed, and best organized special interest groups in the country. Indeed, the organization carries formidable political influence and really does define what it means to be pro-Israel on the Hill. And yes, though it’s rarely tested, there is the perception in Congress that it’s unwise to oppose a pro-Israeli letter, bill, or sense of the Congress resolution. Most legislators have other priorities other than Israel, so fighting with AIPAC over supporting a close American ally just doesn’t make sense and can carry real costs.

But recognizing or even bucking political reality isn’t being anti-Semitic or hostile to the Israelis. Nor is conceding — as Hagel does — that there’s not a lot of political courage in Congress on the Israel issue. Let’s face it. For a group of 100 pretty smart U.S. senators, there really isn’t much debate, nuance, let alone broad disagreement about supporting Israel — and that’s not just because Israel is a very close ally of the United States or that what it does is always in America’s interests.

But the issue goes considerably deeper. I don’t use the term "Jewish lobby" because it really fails to capture the depth and breadth of support for Israel in America today. Millions of evangelical Christians and non-evangelical Christians support Israel for reasons of eschatology and value affinity. Indeed, if it weren’t for the non-Jewish support Israel receives based on the fact that it’s in the broadest conception of the U.S. national interest to support like-minded societies — even those that pursue policies we don’t like (see: settlements) — the U.S.-Israeli relationship would be a shadow of itself.

Even though the Arabs and Iranians are Israel’s best talking points in Washington, sorry, conspiracy theorists: There’s simply no way 5.5 million American Jews can account for the support Israel receives. It is the image of Israel in the mind of America — as a democratic, humanistic, pro-Western state worthy of support — that drives the special relationship. When that perception of shared values and interests changes, so will the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The reaction to Hagel’s comments about domestic politics also reflects something else, too: the dishonest debate in America about the role of the pro-Israeli community here.

Israel’s supporters want everyone to believe that domestic politics have nothing to do with why America supports Israel; for them, it’s all value affinity and Israel as a strategic ally. Israel’s detractors want everyone to conclude that domestic politics is just about all there is, and that without the lobby, there wouldn’t be a special bond. Neither is true.

The fact is, the pro-Israeli community in America does have a powerful voice, particularly in Congress, but it doesn’t have a veto over U.S. policy. And the farther you go from Capitol Hill, the clearer this becomes. Willful presidents with smart strategies trump domestic lobbies every time, whether it’s on arms sales or peace initiatives. Indeed, I’ve long believed that the real Jewish lobby is the Jewish lobby of one — the effect that an Israeli prime minister can have on a U.S. president. When they can find a way to work together and respect one another’s interests, good stuff happens for both America and Israel — and usually for the Arabs, too.

Is the target Hagel, Obama, or both? The character of the attack on Hagel leads me to question whether or not the real target of the anti-Hagelites is the president. After all, one of the reasons some pro-Israeli detractors don’t want Hagel as SecDef is their fear that he would only reinforce Obama’s own alleged instincts to be soft on the mullahs and hard on Benjamin Netanyahu. Presumably, that’s one reason he’s even in the running for the job — they share similar views on many matters. The president isn’t seen as warm and fuzzy when it comes to bonding with Netanyahu or the Israelis. So if Hagel’s opponents can indeed sink him, it sends a message on these matters to the White House, too.

Withholder-in-chief: Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran sanctions: Much has been made of Hagel’s views on other matters — talking to Hamas, changing tack on Hezbollah, and questioning the value of sanctions against Iran. On all these issues, Hagel’s views are out of synch with current U.S. policy. I disagree with the former senator on all three (and make no mistake, should the nomination move ahead, he’ll be pressed on all three).

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Chuck Hagel will be in a position to influence the debate on any of them. As I’ve written elsewhere, Barack Obama is the most withholding and controlling U.S. president on foreign policy since Richard Nixon. All power on the big and sensitive issues flows in and out of the White House, as John Kerry will discover too. Obama dominates; he doesn’t delegate. Don’t like what Hagel has to say on Hamas? Not to worry. Unhappy about his views on sanctions? Never mind. His views on this and other matters won’t count for much.

Second-term credibility: Finally, what’s so intriguing about the Hagel business is that it seems to be part of a broader story. Rarely, if ever, has a president had his top two national security cabinet picks opposed so vehemently before they were even nominated. Susan Rice was forced to withdraw; the same fate may well await Chuck Hagel.

If the White House does pull the plug on Hagel — the not-quite-yet and maybe-never nominee — all kinds of conclusions will be drawn. Some will blame it on the neocons and the pro-Israel lobby; others will wonder why the White House didn’t do a better job of looking at the former senator’s past statements or question why Obama caved and didn’t do a Tammy Wynette-style "Stand by Your Man" routine.

For me, the main takeaway of this episode is that a popular second-term president — one of only 17 in U.S. history — just isn’t as influential as some would like to believe. Even in an area — national security — where he’s supposed to be fully in command.

The second-term illusion — that a  president now freed from political constraints of reelection can afford to be bold, tough, and have his way —  remains pretty much that.  Whether it’s gun control, the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, or Israeli-Palestinian peace, Obama is in for some very tough fights with Congress and the special interests. That he may go 0 for 2 on his preferred cabinet picks may only be the beginning of the story.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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