Chuck Hagel disapproves of what he has evocatively called “the Jewish lobby.” He may have more reason to do so if, as is rumored, President Obama nominates him to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. If he is tapped by the president, Hagel is likely to face bipartisan resistance from pro-Israel groups that have long considered him a foe. For his part, Hagel has declared, “I’m not an Israeli senator,” and told former State Department official Aaron David Miller disapprovingly, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
“Institutionally, AIPAC would be opposed to him,” says a source active in both national security and the Jewish community, who notes that, while some groups are prohibited from taking formal positions on political nominees, AIPAC will do what it can to scuttle Hagel’s confirmation if, in fact, he is nominated. Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), tells National Review Online, “The record clearly shows that there is strong bipartisan concern with Chuck Hagel’s record and his comments, and I think you will see this come to the fore if that nomination does go forward.”
In fact, Jewish leaders are already expressing that concern. Several leaders from the Jewish community reportedly arrived at the president’s Hanukkah party on Thursday to warn administration officials against nominating Hagel. One attendee said Hagel was “the talk of the party”; another said the controversy over his nomination would be “Susan Rice times ten.” A fact sheet highlighting the positions Hagel has taken on Iran, Israel, and terrorist groups from Hamas to Hezbollah is reportedly circulating on Capitol Hill. The RJC said in a statement that nominating Hagel would be “a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel.”
Defeating a Hagel nomination, however, will be more difficult than mounting a vocal opposition, in large part due to the Senate’s tradition of collegiality. Tradition indicates the Senate would extend a former senator — one whose Senate colleagues would be directly involved in his confirmation — considerable latitude. Sources say that, in order for the opposition to have a real chance at defeating a possible Hagel nomination, a sitting senator — around whom others can rally — must be willing to mount a battle against him. A founder of the non-partisan national security organization Secure America Now, Allen Roth tells National Review Online, “If nobody takes the lead in the Senate,” it’s unlikely the Hagel foes will be able to get much traction. “We’re at the early stages of this,” says Brooks. “My sense is obviously that there will be somebody that emerges. I just haven’t heard of anybody yet.”
Pro-Israel groups have long cited what they say is Hagel’s record of hostility to Israel. Hagel was one of just four senators who in October 2000 abstained from signing a letter affirming America’s “solidarity with Israel” as the Second Intifada intensified. He has said that support for Israel should not be automatic: At a 2007 dinner sponsored by the Arab-American Institute, Hagel told the crowd, “No relationship should ever be founded on holding hostage other relationships.” In 2006, he vehemently opposed Israel’s retaliation against Hezbollah in Lebanon, writing in his book America: Our Next Chapter, that “military retaliation — rightful or not — is not a political strategy that can end the threat posed by terrorist groups” and criticizing Israel for pursuing “tactical military victories” at the expense of Arab-Israeli peace. “These things make me not only uncomfortable” says Roth, “but I think he’s the wrong guy for the job of defense secretary.”
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.