Politics & Policy

Questioning Hagel

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

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?

In his now-famous Aaron Miller interview, Senator Hagel used the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to supporters of Israel, for which he has now, in a way, apologized. In truth I am not very disturbed by this comment, but am disturbed by other words of his, also worth repeating. Hagel recounted speaking to an unidentified group “in New York . . . [where] this guy kept pushing and pushing. And he alluded to the fact that maybe I wasn’t supporting Israel enough or something. And I just said let me clear something up here, in case there is any doubt. I said, ‘I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.’ I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States — not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that. Now I know most senators don’t talk like I do.”

They certainly don’t — but is that due to their cowardice before the “Jewish lobby,” as he suggested? Obviously no one in that group in New York was in any doubt that he was a United States senator. What, then, is the meaning of his reply if not this: that he is loyal to the United States, and his oath is to the Constitution of the United States only, “not to Israel,” unlike some people, who put Israel’s interests first. This remark seems to me more than merely irascible; it suggests that those who challenged his views have different loyalties. Can such a statement really be left unexamined and unchallenged?

There are more of the senator’s troublesome comments on the record, and there are plenty of defenses of him, too — for example, from Jews who know him, and have known him for a long time, and say that never once has he said anything to them that could remotely be considered anti-Semitic. This defense reflects a misunderstanding of the issue. Senator Hagel is a highly intelligent man and a successful politician. To wonder if he has some kind of problem with the organized Jewish community is not to suggest that he makes anti-Semitic remarks to Jews, nor that he lacks Jewish acquaintances. I imagine a few Jews from Nebraska will testify as to what a fine fellow he is when the hearings are held.

In fact, dismiss my allusion to anti-Semitism and you are still left with the same issue: his view of the organized Jewish community, in Nebraska and nationally, and the legitimacy of its demands. The comments from Omaha Jewish leaders suggest that he viewed their demands, or requests, coldly indeed. The quotation above from the Miller interview is cut from the same cloth, reflecting a sense that too much is being asked, so much indeed that the demands — or call them requests, pressures, or lobbying — are illegitimate and reflect some unacceptable or un-American loyalty.

In the 1930s, the organized Jewish community in America learned a great lesson from its powerlessness and its failure to challenge the Roosevelt administration to do more to save European Jewry. In later decades, it organized itself and stood up for Soviet Jewry, despite the objections of many analysts and specialists, even then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, that the demands were wrong, damaging, and counter-productive. It was said that such advocacy would interfere with American interests and damage critical U.S.-Soviet relations. But the lesson learned from that more recent experience was that influence is good to have, and to use, and that it is legitimate for organized groups of citizens to press their government in the way advocates for Soviet Jews did. In the end, the Soviet Jewry drive both freed 2 million Soviet Jews and, by denying trade credits and guarantees to the decaying Soviet Union, helped bring the empire down — and saved U.S. taxpayers a fortune.

Today most pressure from the organized Jewish community over foreign-policy issues is related to the security of Israel and the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. To be treated with indifference by an elected official is bad enough. To be told by a future nominee for very high office that, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator,” and “my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States” is insulting and unacceptable. It suggests that Senator Hagel believes such lobbying by American Jews to be illegitimate and offensive, and is indeed evidence of loyalty to another country.

In 2013 the American Jewish community is not worried about name-calling, “restricted” apartment houses, or the admission policies of country clubs. Such things are rare and unimportant. But the view that Jews are doing something questionable or even disloyal when they join together to promote the closest possible alliance between the United States and Israel, and urge that the United States act to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, remains a serious matter. That apparent sentiment is what bothers me about Senator Hagel, not the use of the term “Jewish lobby.” It may be that in hearings all these concerns will be fully allayed to the satisfaction of any fair-minded person. But the question must be asked. To do so is not to “smear’ Senator Hagel or raise a “distraction.” It is to ask for a full answer to a serious and legitimate question.

— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, will be published in February.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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