Hagel and the Hawks

Chuck Hagel hasn’t even been nominated for Secretary of Defense and yet rumors abound that he is a frontrunner for the job. The volume of the squawking from hard-line hawks opposing his nomination reveals much about the way the neoconservative echo chamber operates.

Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), founder of Washington PAC, and author of the 2008 ultimatum, Why Jews Must Vote for John McCain“, opined to Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon that Hagel becoming Secretary of Defense “would be a very unwise and disastrous choice for U.S. policies and activities regarding the Middle East.” Asked to rate Hagel’s views on Israel, Amitay responded, “He’s probably the worst.”

“He is one of the most hostile critics of Israel that has ever been in the Senate,” harrumphed Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America to The Algemeiner, a right-wing (and virulently anti-Obama) Jewish news site.

Noah Silverman of  the Republican Jewish Coalition wrote that Hagel’s nomination would be a “gut check” for pro-Obama Israel supporters, gleefully pointing to a litany of complaints about Hagel refusing to sign letters of support on a variety of Israel-related topics compiled by the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). Silverman also referenced the rantings of Jennifer Rubin, Right Turn blogger at the Washington Post, who dusted off and recycled some anti-Hagel canards from her files, in particular an anti-Hagel screed she wrote for Commentary in 2010.

What do Rubin and the hyper-pro-Israel, franti-Iran-spinmeisters find so distressing and dangerous about Hagel? And how justified are their accusations? Rubin notes that “In 2009, Hagel signed a letter urging Obama to open direct negotiations with Hamas, a position so extreme that Obama hasn’t (yet) embraced it.”

In fact, the said letter was the brainchild of Henry Siegman, the Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress for nearly three decades, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, a US army chaplain awarded a bronze star during the Korean War and currently President of the US/Middle East Project (USMEP). He also authored a 2006 article for the New York Review of Books stating that negotiating with Hamas was Israel’s last chance for peace. Hagel’s nine “extreme” bi-partisan co-signatories were two veteran presidential national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski; economic adviser Paul Volcker; JFK’s special counsel Ted Sorensen; former House International Relations Committee chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat; former Bush #41 UN ambassador Thomas Pickering, co-chair of USMEP; World Bank president James Wolfensohn; Carla Hills, a former US trade representative during the Ford administration; and another former Republican senator, Nancy Kassebaum Baker.

Hagel’s anti-Israel stance is epitomized by a (rather fuzzily cited) Hagel quote dug up by Rubin, which she apparently considers damning: “Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind. 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.”

On Iran, Rubin wrote in 2010: “Hagel was one of two senators in 2004 to vote against renewal of the Libya-Iran sanctions act. (“Messrs. Hagel and [Richard] Lugar … want a weaker stance than most other senators against the terrorists in Iran and Syria and the West Bank and Gaza and against those who help the terrorists. They are more concerned than most other senators about upsetting our erstwhile allies in Europe — the French and Germans — who do business with the terrorists.”)

The unidentified parenthetical quote she used in both her Washington Post and Commentary attacks on Hagel was lifted from a 2004 New York Sun editorial disparaging Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry for his adherence to “Lugar-Hagelism”– a foreign policy stance that regards direct negotiations with antagonists as being far more productive and efficacious than sanctions:

  …what is Lugar-Hagelism?

One indicator came on July 24, 2001, when the Senate voted 96 to 2 to renew the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. The act helps deny Iran and Libya money that they would spend on supporting terror or acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The two senators who opposed the measure? Messrs. Lugar and Hagel.

Another indicator came on November 11, 2003, when the Senate, by a vote of 89 to 4, passed the Syria Accountability Act authorizing sanctions on Syria for its support of terrorism and its occupation of Lebanon. Mr. Hagel – along with Mr. Kerry – didn’t vote. Mr. Hagel met in Damascus in 1998 with the terror-sponsoring dictator, Hafez Al-Assad, and returned to tell a reporter about the meeting, “Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun.”

Kerry and Hagel weren’t alone in abstaining on the Syria Accountability Act vote. Sen. Joe Lieberman didn’t cast a vote either. More to the point, Hagel’s stance on Syria, expressed to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2005, has proven itself astute, even prescient:

The United States should be very cautious about supporting the collapse of the Assad regime. That would be a dangerous event, with the potential to trigger wider regional instability at a time when our capacity to help shape a desired regional outcome is very limited. Our objective should be a strategic shift in Syria’s perspective and actions that would open the way to greater common interests for the countries of the region.

Furthermore, it would appear that attacks from the right on Hagel might also apply to Kerry: “Mr. Kerry has a lot in common with Mr. Hagel; Mr.Hagel is also a decorated Vietnam veteran who is now a multimillionaire. Mr. Kerry has a lot in common with Mr. Lugar, too; they are both former Navy officers. Mr. Lugar has been in the Senate for 27 years, while Mr. Kerry has been there, and serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Mr. Lugar now chairs, for 19 years.”

Ironically, during the 2012 election cycle, Lugar — who the New York Sun dubbed “Ayatollah Lugar” for his skepticism about the wisdom of Iran sanctions — received $20,000 from NORPAC, a leading pro-Israel political action committee in New Jersey, more than any other candidate in the 2012 election cycle. The Jewish Week explains why pro-Israel groups lamented Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana GOP primary and his absence from the Senate:

Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, consistently backed defense assistance for Israel and in the 1980s championed freedom for Soviet Jews. But he was also known for pushing a more active U.S. approach to brokering Middle East peace than that favored by much of the pro-Israel lobby, and he preferred to move ahead cautiously on Iran sanctions….

Israel advocates and GOP insiders explained that Lugar represented a breed of lawmaker who pro-Israel groups see as valuable to their cause and disappearing: One who reaches across the aisle.

“Lugar wasn’t actively pro-Israel, but he wasn’t anti either,” said Mike Kraft, a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1970s and 1980s who now is a consultant on counterterrorism and writes for a number of pro-Israel websites and think tanks. “But generally losing a good, balanced, thoughtful guy on foreign policy is a real tragedy. It weakens the American political system.”

Try telling that to Jennifer Rubin.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Interstingly, the far right, while losing seats and approval, continues to exercise power. The working tactic apparently is to chop down any potential Obama nominee (eg Susan Rice) even before a being nominated. Which potential judicial nominees will be drawn and quartered before being nominated?

    All the best,

  2. Alan, Susan Rice was thrown under the bus by Obama because he has bigger fish to fry. If the whole episode proved anything about her, it is that she is too much of a lightweight to be Sec State anyway. I’m sure Obama will give her a nice consolation prize that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

  3. Hagel sounds like the perfect man for the job. I only hope Obama doesn’t leave him twisting in the wind like he did Chas Freeman while the right-wing Zionists try to swift-boat him.

Comments are closed.