President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, has provoked significant reaction in the Jewish American community, centering on his statements about the “Jewish lobby,” Israel and the Palestinians, and Iran.
The Washington Post Fact Checker column has a compendium of Hagel’s statements. Number One on the Jewish hit parade is “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here…. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.” This is reminiscent of the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis about the Israeli lobby.
Hagel has also been accused of excusing Palestinian terrorism with statements like, “The Israeli government essentially continues to play games…. Desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away. And that’s where the Palestinians are today.”
On Iran, Hagel has said Arabs generally believe America ‘‘has tilted toward Israel’’ in its Mideast relations and there will be no lasting peace in the region without relationships with Iran.
Statements like these have brought Hagel under attack not only from Republicans but also liberal Democrats.
In an interview with the Jewish website The Algemeiner, Alan Dershowitz said the Hagel nomination was a mistake. “This will send a message to the Iranian mullahs of softness, to nominate a man who is opposed to sanctions and who is opposed to the military option,” said the Harvard law professor. “It is less important what he (Hagel) really thinks, it is what the Iranians think he thinks, that is important… [I]t’s a green light or at least a yellow light for them to pursue their nuclear program.”
In another interview with The Algemeiner, Ed Koch said that Hagel’s appointment signaled Obama’s betrayal of Israel. “Frankly, I thought that there would come a time when he would renege on what he conveyed on his support of Israel,” said the former mayor of New York, adding, “it comes a little earlier than I thought it would.”
Koch believes the Hagel nomination “undoubtedly will reduce support for [Obama] in the Jewish community,” but doesn’t think the president worries about that now that the election is over.
However, concerns like these over the Hagel pick would be critical were we evaluating the administration’s foreign policy and the work of the State Department. Instead, Hagel’s charge will be the Defense Department. The more vital question is what his appointment means to national defense and the security of the United States.
None other than the Washington Post editorial board said that Hagel, while offering the “veneer of bipartisanship,” is not the right choice for Defense. “Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term,” the editorial said.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta fought sequestration cuts of the defense budget because they would have dire consequences for United States security. Hagel thinks to the contrary. “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,” he has said. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks, probably one of the administration’s favorite conservative pundits, nailed it in his column last week explaining why Hagel was nominated.
Americans are facing a classic “guns or butter” decision, he suggested, between traditional levels of support for defense and growing pressures to subsidize health-care spending, especially Medicare. In the 2012 election, the majority chose subsidized health care. Since tax increases will not raise sufficient funds to finance a “health care state,” the only immediately available funds are in the defense budget.
“Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting,” wrote Brooks. “The United States will undergo a similar process.”
Defense spending cuts, Brooks concluded, “will transform America’s stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today.”
Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary.
American faces a number of defense challenges in the next decade. Putin’s Russia is looking for a military renaissance and seems intent on confronting the United States as the USSR did during the Cold War. China is building its military and is asserting itself on the world stage. Iran wants to create a Shi’ite version of the Persian Empire. Islamists, who have taken power in Arab Spring countries, are looking to extend Islamist influence by political and insurgent means.
Obama’s response is to nominate a man he feels can preside over the decline of American military power. That is how the nomination should be judged.