Whether or not Chuck Hagel is confirmed as our next defense secretary, his nomination has already done serious damage to U.S. credibility on Iran, thereby emboldening the most dangerous regime in the Middle East. To limit the damage, President Obama should choose someone else to lead the Pentagon.
After all, the former Nebraska senator is the same person who has consistently opposed sanctions against Iran. He is the same person who wanted Washington to support Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization. The same person who voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group (at a time when the IRGC was orchestrating the murder of U.S. troops in Iraq). The same person who refused to sign a letter asking the European Union to label Hezbollah (an Iranian proxy) a terror group. The same person who urged President Bush to offer Iran “direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks.” The same person who called for establishing a U.S. diplomatic mission in Tehran. The same person who dismissed “a military strike against Iran” as “not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” The same person who wrote that a nuclear Iran might be tolerable because “sovereign nation-states possessing nuclear weapons capability (as opposed to stateless terrorist groups) will often respond with some degree of responsible, or at least sane, behavior.”
During his years in the Senate, Hagel’s opposition to Iran sanctions placed him in a very, very small minority. For example, only one senator joined him in voting against sanctions in 2001, and only one Senate Banking Committee member joined him in rejecting a different sanctions package in 2008. Simply put: He has zero credibility on perhaps the biggest foreign-policy challenge of President Obama’s second term.
Consider how his nomination was interpreted by Iranian journalists and government officials. Press TV, a Tehran-based propaganda network, noted with satisfaction that the “anti-Israel” Hagel is known for “his criticism of Washington’s anti-Iran policies” and “has consistently opposed any plan to launch [a] military strike against Iran.” Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry responded to the Hagel announcement by declaring, “We hope that practical changes will be created in the U.S. foreign policy and . . . that the U.S. officials will favor peace instead of warmongering.”
Just for good measure, Al Jazeera published an article headlined “Obama Defeats the Israel Lobby.” Is this really the impression we want to foster among Middle Eastern governments? Of course not. But what did President Obama expect? Not only has Hagel been a persistent critic of Iran sanctions, he has also displayed a stubborn hostility to America’s closest Middle Eastern ally.
In August 1998, Hagel appeared to blame Palestinian violence on Israel’s allegedly sluggish implementation of the Oslo peace accords: “Desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away,” he told the Associated Press. “And that’s where the Palestinians are today.” In October 2000, shortly after Yasser Arafat launched the Second Intifada, 96 U.S. senators signed a letter to President Clinton affirming their solidarity with Israel. Hagel was not among them. Six months later, amid a relentless onslaught of Palestinian terrorism, 87 senators signed a different letter, asking President Bush to “initiate a reassessment of our relations with the Palestinians.” Yet again, Hagel refused to sign. He also refused to join 89 other senators in signing a November 2001 letter that urged Bush to maintain strong support for Israel and to continue snubbing Arafat until the Palestinian leader ended his terror campaign.
On April 12, 2002, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed six people and injured more than 100 others in Jerusalem. That same day, Hagel went to the Senate floor and suggested a moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli self-defense, arguing that the latter “should not be at the expense of the Palestinian people — innocent Palestinian people and innocent Israelis who are paying a high price. Both Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a war not of their making.” Three months later, he published a Washington Post article bemoaning “the endless cycle of violence” and declaring that “Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace.”
By July 2006, the Second Intifada was over, but Israel found itself under attack by Hezbollah paramilitaries based in Lebanon. Once again, Hagel stood on the Senate floor and made a statement that conflated terrorist violence with Israel’s defensive response: “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end,” he said, accusing Israel of “the systematic destruction of an American friend — the country and people of Lebanon.”
Speaking of terrorist groups, Hagel co-authored a 2009 policy paper that advised President Obama to pursue a dialogue with Hamas. More specifically, the paper recommended that Obama “offer [Hamas] inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might help clarify the movement’s views and test its behavior.” Most of us believe that Hamas’s views and behavior are already clear enough: It is committed to the annihilation of Israel; it fires rockets and Iranian-made missiles at civilian areas; and it indoctrinates Palestinian children in a culture of hatred and violence.
Of course, Hagel’s most infamous comments on Israel were delivered during a 2006 interview with former Clinton-administration official Aaron David Miller: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” he said. “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.” These remarks were deeply offensive but also quite revealing, for they confirmed that he simply does not understand the true basis of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Contra Hagel, the American people and their elected representatives support Israel for obvious reasons: Both of our countries are pluralistic democracies with a shared commitment to liberty, equality, and basic human rights; both of our countries are threatened by radical Islam; and both of our countries have responded to that threat while remaining free and open societies. In other words, we have an alliance based on common values and a common determination to defend liberal democracy against terrorists and dictators alike.
I realize that Senator Hagel is now repudiating many of his past actions and statements. But this sudden and convenient transformation beggars belief. Hagel has not undergone an abrupt ideological makeover; he is just desperate to win Senate approval. It is a classic “confirmation conversion.”
— John Cornyn (R., Texas) is the Senate Republican whip.