While Marsha Cohen and Ali Gharib have reviewed some of the reaction to Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination as Secretary of Defense, Bill Kristol, co-founder/director of such august organizations as the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), the Project for the New American Century, and the Foreign Policy Initiative, appears to have officially launched what could be called the neo-conservative stop it. Writing on the Weekly Standard website (of course, he’s the publication’s editor in chief), Kristol quotes at length from “a fact sheet circulating widely on Capitol Hill” (whose provenance he fails to disclose) entitled “Introduction to the Reading of Hagel”, an oh-so-clever reference to the German idealist philosopher of the early 19th century.
What is interesting, if not altogether surprising, is the degree to which the “Reading” quoted by Kristol is centered on the U.S. relationship with Israel — more evidence that Israel and its security and welfare stand at the very center of the neo-conservative worldview, a point that is studiously avoided by most of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, at least when its members are speaking or writing publicly. It doesn’t matter what Hagel thinks about China, for example, or about the “pivot” to Asia, or about treatment of wounded vets, or missile defense, or about the appropriate size of the Navy or Marine Corps; it’s all about Israel and the purported threats it faces.
Particularly remarkable is the Hagel quote featured in point number 9 in the section titled “Israel and the ‘Jewish Lobby.'” (You can actually hear the quote if you go to the Politico article entitled “Chuck Hagel’s Record on Israel Draws Scrutiny” about the incipient controversy; it’s from an interview presumably conducted by Aaron David Miller for his book.) This is the relevant passage as it appears in the “Reading:”
9. When questioned about his pro-Israel record during a meeting in New York with supporters of Israel, Hagel is reported to have said, “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.”
Now, I would think that the vast majority of Americans — even including those who support Israel — would consider this a very good statement of how a U.S. senator or any U.S. official should conceive his or her role and purpose. But it seems that Kristol and the anonymous author(s) of the “Reading” believe this position is somehow reprehensible. If true, a more damning indictment of the author(s)’ and Kristol’s view — at least, from those who believe that the first obligation of a U.S. lawmaker is to protect the Constitution and the country — would be very difficult to find.
Indeed, I would hope that this line of attack against Hagel would push Obama into both going ahead with the nomination and aggressively defending it on precisely the basis that all U.S. officials must have as their primary allegiance the defense of the Constitution and of the United States, and not of a foreign country, however friendly it might be.
The Politico article usefully cites the precedent of Amb. Chas Freeman’s appointment and subsequent withdrawal as chairman of the National Intelligence Council under pressure from the both neo-conservatives and the more conventional Israel lobby — while the two definitely overlap and often work together, there are important differences between them — in the early days of the Obama administration. (As readers of this blog know, I am a big Freeman fan who greatly admires both his encyclopedic knowledge and his strategic vision.) In that case, of course, the campaign against Freeman focused even more on his allegedly close ties to the Chinese leadership than on his presumed hostility to Israel and its policies. It was a very clever tactic designed, of course, to divert attention to the fact that the campaign was orchestrated by key figures in the Israel lobby, notably Steve Rosen, a former top AIPAC official. Whether the neo-cons and/or AIPAC or its past associates can find a similar non-Israel-related stick with which to beat Hagel remains to be seen.
But it appears already that Kristol and the unknown author(s) of the “Reading” intend to act as the vanguard of a larger campaign that will probably — if very discreetly — include AIPAC, which has so far maintained a public silence about the speculation surrounding Hagel’s nomination. (Could it be that the “Reading” was based on AIPAC’s files?) One notes, of course, that Josh Block, identified in the Politico article as “a former AIPAC spokesman”, has already weighed in against the nomination, suggesting that the former senator is an Iran/Hezbollah-lover. Block has more recently taken over the leadership of The Israel Project (TIP) and has moved it quickly into taking a harder line in support of Israel’s Likud leadership than under TIP’s previous director/founder, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. (The change is indicated, among other things, by the recent defection of TIP’s former head of communications, Allan Elsner (previously a very professional diplomatic correspondent for Reuters), to J Street, which, incidentally, praised Hagel in the Politico article.
My assumption at this point is that the lobby, quietly led by AIPAC — but with neo-cons like Kristol (and the more-aggressive Israel lobbyists like Block and Rosen) acting as the point of the spear — will indeed mount a major campaign against Hagel’s nomination, UNLESS Obama himself makes it very clear that he’s willing to go to the mat on this, meaning that he’s prepared to make exactly the point made by Hagel in point number 9 on “Israel and the ‘Jewish Lobby’.” (Interestingly, the organized US Jewish community as a whole is far from united in opposing Hagel.) Of course, the president must first get up the nerve to actually nominate him. This will be an important test of his second-term intentions vis-a-vis Israel and everything that concerns it.
NOTE: In a previous version of this post, I wrote that I didn’t see the phrase “Jewish Lobby” quoted by Kristol in the excerpts of the “Reading.” That was my mistake. He clearly did use that phrase, and, in my opinion, that is regrettable since, as many others have pointed out, the Israel lobby consists of many Christian Zionists and most Jews are more critical of Israel and its policies than is the lobby. At the same time, the fact that his opponents, who have become increasingly shrill in the last 48 hours, have not provided a single shred of additional evidence of anti-Semitism or another instance in which Hagel used the same phrase suggests that the many individuals who are now coming out in support of his nomination and specifically to reject the anti-Semitism charge, strongly suggests that the issue is a red herring and that what is really motivating the opposition is fear that Hagel, if nominated, will indeed be confirmed and will not be shy about voicing his criticism of Israeli policies when he thinks it appropriate.