Questioning Hagel
Anti-Semitism or not, it’s about the legitimacy of Jewish advocacy.

Chuck Hagel in Amman, Jordan, in July 2008


Elliott Abrams

The debate over the confirmation of former senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense has become very heated indeed, and I’ve contributed to that heat. Given the reactions, a further comment may be in order.

The primary argument against Hagel’s confirmation seems to be that his policy views are wrong, bad, and even dangerous — and of course contrary to those of whoever is lodging this criticism. Several senators have already said they would vote against Hagel, and others have jumped on the fence and are sitting there until the hearings — due to their policy disagreements with him, often over Iran policy and Israel policy. I completely agree with the typical criticisms of his policy views, but can’t say I find them to be persuasive grounds for opposing his confirmation.

For one thing, the general rule should be that presidents get the policies and the appointees they want. I did not vote for President Obama, but he did win and he does get to make his own policy and choose his subordinates.

Moreover, it is clear from the president’s first term that he is very much in charge. By comparison, the policy role the secretary of state had when I worked for George Shultz in the 1980s was far greater, and the dominance of the president and the NSC smaller, than has been the case for the last four years. I’ve been unsympathetic to criticisms of Secretary Clinton’s stewardship based on policy differences because the White House left her so little wiggle room. Whatever she accomplished or failed to accomplish on Libya or Syria, whatever errors of policy have been made toward Israel, and whatever the faults of our Iran policy (to confine the issues to the Middle East), she should not, in my view, get very much credit or blame. The president should.

The Hagel confirmation hearing is a wonderful chance for Obama critics to demand explanations of the president’s policies and to explain their own reasons for thinking them flawed and damaging to U.S. interests. Asking Senator Hagel to defend those policies is absolutely fair.

Moreover, strong senatorial criticisms of the administration’s policies may make a useful impression on Hagel. He needs to know what Obama’s critics think, and he needs to be reminded that, while as a senator he could almost ignore the views of his colleagues, even contemptuously so, as secretary of defense he would do so at his peril. I do think that Hagel’s views over the years about Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel, terrorism, and many other issues are way, way off base — indeed, dangerous. But I can’t quite see why one should vote against his confirmation because, for example, the president has been dangerously wrong to follow a policy of absolute passivity in Syria, and Senator Hagel shares and defends that approach.

I would not want to establish the precedent, either, that confirmation should be denied when a nominee is competent to do the job in question but senators think a president’s policies wrong. I can see holding up a vote to get something from the president — some information on Benghazi, for example. Or senators may decide Senator Hagel is not competent. Military historian Eliot Cohen explained this week in the Washington Post that being a sergeant in the Army 45 years ago, even one with combat experience and several medals, is not much of a qualification to run the entire Defense Department in 2013. Others have argued that Hagel lacks the management skills and experience needed to lead a huge enterprise like the Pentagon. But it’s hard to argue that supporting the president’s policies is a disqualifying attribute — even if one disagrees with those policies as deeply as I do. Senators will have to decide whether the nominee in fact supports the president’s stated policies, or actually holds different views that they may think are unacceptable.

My own argument against Senator Hagel’s suitability is different. I do not know him, so I have no animosity toward him based on any disputes we have had. But the press has carried several articles now suggesting some sort of a problem between him and the Jewish community, and that is the issue I have raised. In a Monday article in The Weekly Standard, I concluded that “one purpose of confirmation hearings should be to find out” whether this problem existed.

These are extremely serious matters, to be sure. Even the suggestion that there is something worth asking about here should never be made lightly. Various responses have called my allusion to this subject a distraction, a smear, and worse — predictably resorting to far more awful language to describe me personally. So why did I say a problem may exist? Because just as it would be a mistake to raise this entire issue lightly, it is a mistake to give Senator Hagel a pass on the record as it stands without further assessment by the Senate. To advance the argument, I will avoid the term anti-Semitism, because it can mean too many different, particular things, and does not help illuminate the nature of the issue I discussed.

In The Weekly Standard, I noted the remarkable comments by Nebraska Jewish community leaders about the coldness and indifference Hagel displayed to them. As I explained, the long-time editor of the Omaha Jewish Press said Hagel “didn’t give a damn about the Jewish community or any of our concerns.” How is it possible simply to ignore a comment like that?