The concerns over a Hagel nomination extend beyond the former senator’s views on Israel. A senior congressional aide tells me that it is the former senator’s views on Iran that may ultimately prove to be the major roadblock to his confirmation. “That’s the biggest question that will be asked,” he says. The RJC’s Brooks echoed this, noting, “The next secretary of defense is going to have to deal with [Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon] on Day One.” Hagel’s views on the matter, says Brooks, “put him at odds ostensibly with the administration position, with the Senate, with the Congress, and with the American people.”
In the Senate, Hagel consistently voted against imposing sanctions on Iran and has for years advocated unconditional negotiations with the regime. “Isolating nations is risky,” he has said. “It turns them inward, and makes their citizens susceptible to the most demagogic fear mongering.” He has also suggested that he may not be opposed to Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. “The genie of nuclear armaments is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does,” he wrote in his book. “In this imperfect world, sovereign nation-states possessing nuclear weapons capability . . . will often respond with some degree of responsible, or at least sane, behavior.” Hagel “comes from a growing school of thought — I guess Ron Paul is one of the godfathers of this,” observes Roth, “that if we have enough free trade and talk to our enemies enough, they’ll leave us alone.”
For all the debate about the reaction to a Hagel nomination, there is some precedent to consider. When President Obama in 2009 nominated Hagel to co-chair the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, a bipartisan body that advises the president on the efficacy of the nation’s intelligence community, Jewish groups on both sides of the aisle expressed displeasure, but did not mount a serious campaign against him. “If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns,” the Obama campaign’s Jewish Outreach Director and the former executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, told The Weekly Standard at the time. Forman did not return a call seeking comment. The RJC’s Brooks called the 2009 appointment “a matter for serious concern” because of Hagel’s “troubling record on critical foreign-policy issues.”
As a more instructive comparison of what may transpire in the event of Hagel’s nomination, some point to Charles “Chas” Freeman’s failed nomination as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Freeman is an outspoken critic of Israel who withdrew his nomination, blaming the “tactics of the Israel lobby.” It was largely bloggers, however, who drew attention to Freeman’s most controversial statements, including his assertion that the Chinese government had reacted too cautiously to the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square and failed to “nip the demonstrations in the bud.” “If this nomination is going to be defeated,” says the anonymous curator of the blog Israel Matzav, who for years has been an outspoken opponent of Hagel, “it’s going to be up to the grassroots bloggers, as it was with Chas Freeman four years ago.”
The White House has declined to comment on how pro-Israel groups would react to Hagel’s nomination. Responding Thursday to CNN’s Jessica Yellin, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “The president thinks very highly of Senator Hagel. I think a lot of people in Washington and around the country, and especially in Senator Hagel’s home state, think very highly of him.”
There are many who beg to differ, and we will hear from them if, in the coming weeks, President Obama taps the former Nebraska senator for a crucial cabinet post.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.