The Corner

Colin Powell Tries to Clean Up Hagel’s Mess, Fails

Former secretary of state Colin Powell emerged this morning to voice his support for Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Powell characterized Hagel as a strong supporter of Israel, a move that surely anticipates Hagel’s own in his confirmation hearing. In defending Hagel’s pro-Israel credentials and dismissing the significance of Hagel’s now-infamous reference to the “Jewish lobby,” Powell offered a revealing response. 


“That term slips out from time to time,” he told NBC’s David Gregory. “So Chuck should have said ‘Israeli lobby,’ not ‘Jewish lobby,’ and perhaps he needs to write on a blackboard a hundred times ‘It is the Israeli lobby.’” (Gregory spared Powell the difficulty of Hagel’s distinguishing himself as “not an Israeli senator.”)


If the problem with Hagel’s statement was, in part, that he conflated Jews, broadly speaking, with a pro-Israel lobby that consists of Jews, Christians, and other Americans, Colin Powell was the wrong person to clean up his mess. 


What Hagel termed the “Jewish lobby” – and what is, in reality, a pro-Israel lobby – has mutated, in Powell’s telling, into an “Israeli lobby.” Those familiar with the age-old charge of dual loyalties that has been lobbed at Jews for centuries will know that Powell’s assertion triggers bad historical memories.


America’s pro-Israel lobbying groups aren’t composed of Israelis, nor do they lobby on Israel’s behalf. Rather, they work to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the United States because they operate on the premise that a close relationship is beneficial to both the United States and Israel; as AIPAC, the country’s largest and most influential pro-Israel lobbying group, puts it, it exists to persuade decision makers that “it is in America’s best interest to help ensure that the Jewish state is safe, strong and secure.” 


No sooner do we learn about the “Israeli lobby,” though, than we discover both Powell and Hagel are members of it! “There is an Israeli lobby,” Powell explained, “there are people who are very supportive of the state of Israel, I’m very supportive of the state of Israel, so is Senator Hagel, and you’ll see that at the confirmation hearings. But it doesn’t mean you have to agree with every single position.” 


So, Powell counts himself and Hagel as members of the lobby that’s “broadly supportive of the state of Israel.” If the pro-Israel lobby extends from groups like AIPAC to people like Powell and Hagel, one starts to wonder how much influence this lobby can really have, and why Hagel would have bemoaned the intimidating influence of this lobby on his Capitol Hill colleagues. The dishonesty is evident on its face.  


Powell’s bizarre defense of Hagel took an even more troubling turn as he decried the “dark vein of intolerance” in some parts of the Republican Party. In particular, he singled out former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former New Hampshire governor John Sununu for their racial insensitivity, charging that they “look down on minorities.” Palin attacked the Obama administration for withholding information on the Benghazi scandal, accusing the president of doing a “shuck and jive”; “That’s a racial-era, slave term,” Powell said. Sununu slammed the president’s first debate performance against Mitt Romney, calling Obama “lazy and detached”; “Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African-Americans, the second word is ‘shiftless’ and then there’s another word that goes along with it.” 


One might think that a modicum of self-awareness would prevent Powell from making such charges after flippantly dismissing the concerns raised by many in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. Don’t such remarks just — woopsy daisy! — “slip out from time to time”? And if Powell finds the use of slave-era terminology offensive, one wonders why he has difficulty understanding that, among Jews, the imputation of dual loyalties rankles, even if “it may not mean anything to most Americans.” 


Statements like those made by Hagel are, and should be, matters of serious concern. Elliott Abrams has cogently explained why. Senator Hagel can thank Colin Powell for compounding that concern, and not only by the defense he offered today. After all, it was either Powell or his chief-of-staff Lawrence Wilkerson who charged that former Pentagon undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith was “a card carrying member of the Likud Party, whose allegiance is to Israel rather than to the United States.” In George Packer’s chronicle of the Iraq war, The Assassin’s Gate, he reports that Powell made the allegation to President Bush himself. And, according to Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, Powell referred to Pentagon’s policy shop as Feith’s “Gestapo” office.


Given this background, the crude understanding of America’s pro-Israel lobby Powell displayed in defending Hagel should come as no surprise — and no legitimate comfort to Hagel’s supporters. One can only hope that Hagel’s understanding of the lobby, and of the concerns expressed about his nomination, is more sophisticated. 


NOTE: This has been modified since its original posting.


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