More Smears, and Support, for Hagel

The fight over the possible nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense can be defined as a battle waged with smears from the one side, and thoughtful, evidence-backed arguments from the other.

Too simplistic to be true? Case in point. A few hours ago, Josh Block, a former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), tweeted this full-page ad from the New York Times this morning with the following message: “Found complete Log Cabin ad about #Hagel. Full page NYT today. Wow. If this now, what if later?“.

While the hottest issue over Hagel’s nomination has been his stance on Israel — which appears to be fully supportive, despite rampant claims to the contrary — so too has there been attention on his support for Gay rights. This ad, sponsored by Log Cabin Republicans, a Gay Conservative group that endorsed Romney over Obama, appears damning, but isn’t factual.

“…Chuck Hagel is pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The only problem is that no one asked him his views lately — including the president of the Human Rights Campaign,” wrote Steve Clemons, the openly Gay Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, a week ago. He goes on:

…Hagel has lunch with Vice President Biden about once a week. They don’t tell others about it — but they are best friends. Hagel once donned a Joe Biden mask in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Halloween, wearing a T-shirt labeled “Vote for Me” — when Biden was getting ready (again) to run for president. When Biden opened the door on Meet the Press on gay marriage — saying that he had “absolutely no problem” with gay marriage — I’m guessing Biden and Hagel chatted about it. Biden doesn’t tolerate bigots or racists or people who are locked in anachronistic sensibilities, at least not on his own time. Hagel had evolved privately on these issues — but again, no one had asked him his views.

Perhaps the Log Cabin Republicans were unaware of Clemons article, or, maybe there’s more to that story. But other attacks against Hagel have been carefully crafted by groups and people who undoubtedly know what they’re doing. Groups like the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel, which is known for publishing patently dishonest attacks on President Obama, smear campaigns against its ideological opponents, and attempting to paint the Occupy Wall Street Protests as anti-Semitic.

Then there’s the other side. The side that has taken the time to carefully explain why the ferocious attacks on Hagel have not only been unfair, but untrue. “Hagel is a blunt-spoken, passionate internationalist who believes that it is important to talk to your enemies, and that war should be a last resort,” writes Connie Bruck of the New Yorker. A veteran investigative reporter who has broken some of the most important political stories of our time, Bruck doesn’t shy away from explaining what the fuss is really over:

From the moment Hagel’s name was leaked as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense—in what was, apparently, a trial balloon floated by the Obama Administration—Hagel’s most vocal critics have been members of what can be called the Israel lobby. Their enmity for Hagel goes back to his two terms in the Senate. A committed supporter of Israel and, also, of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, Hagel did not make the obeisance to the lobby that the overwhelming majority of his Congressional colleagues do. And he further violated a taboo by talking about the lobby, and its power. In his 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” Aaron Miller interviewed Hagel, whom he described as “a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.” Miller also wrote, “Of all my conversations, the one with Hagel stands apart for its honesty and clarity.” He quoted Hagel saying that Congress “is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, Hagel continued, and “then you’ll get eighty or ninety senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters”—because, he added, they were “stupid.” Hagel also said, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” but “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

Perhaps most interesting is the so far limited, but growing pushback from Jewish commentators who are calling out right-wing and “extremist” Jewish groups for leading the attack-Hagel wagon. According to Bernard Avishai, an Israeli-American Professor and analyst:

…I think it is time to acknowledge, bluntly, that certain major Jewish organizations, indeed, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—also, the ADL, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, political groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, along with their various columnists, pundits, and list-serves—are among the most consistent purveyors of McCarthyite-style outrages in America today. Are there greater serial defamers of public officials in fake campaigns against defamation? Starting with Andrew Young and the late Charles Percy, and on to Chas Freeman and (now) Chuck Hagel, the game has been to keep Congresspeople and civil servants who might be skeptical of Israel’s occupation and apologetics in a posture that can only be called exaggerated tact.

And here’s James Besser, the Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week from 1987 to 2011, in the New York Times today:

Playing to the extremist fringe could produce short-term gains for pro-Israel groups by rallying the faithful and encouraging big contributions. But — as this year’s election and rising anti-gun sentiment demonstrates — it brings with it the risk of a popular backlash.

Support for the Jewish state remains strong among both parties on Capitol Hill and across the American electorate, and it won’t disappear anytime soon. But that support will wither if Aipac and other mainstream Jewish leaders don’t forcefully reject the zealots in their midst.

And, in the long run, that can only damage the interests of a vulnerable Israel.

photo credit: New America Foundation via photopin cc

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.