In the lead up to President Obama’s announcement, there was an intense debate over former Senator Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination as Secretary of Defense. At times Hagel’s opponents became a touch hysterical, indulging in excessively harsh rhetorical attacks. At first, they charged that he was not sufficiently pro-Israel or hawkish enough on Iran. But then, as is often the case, Hagel’s opponents began to hyperventilate, upping the ante by claiming that the Senator was anti-Semitic or “obsessively addicted to dialogue” with Islamic extremist movements.
Hagel was, to be sure, vigorously defended by stalwarts in the foreign policy establishment. In the end, despite the virulent attacks emanating mainly from the leading lights of the neo-conservative movement and right wing pro-Israel groups, President Obama did, in fact, nominate Chuck Hagel to be his next Secretary of Defense.
I know Chuck Hagel. He is a thoughtful and sober advocate of the realist approach to foreign policy. His priority has always been to defend America’s interests in the world through diplomacy and, only when absolutely necessary, to commit American forces to combat missions in defense of those interests. By disposition, he has an aversion to ideologically-based reckless behavior. His criticism of the war in Iraq, his opposition to the reckless use of force against Iran, and his critique of Israeli actions that impede peace are well-known. So too was his refusal while in the Senate to participate in AIPAC’s frequent “hoop jumping” exercises. He resisted signing, as he termed them, the pro-Israel lobby’s “stupid letters.”
There were moments when I expected the Administration to avoid further conflict by throwing Hagel overboard and moving instead to a “safer” pick for Secretary of Defense. That the president offered a strong endorsement of Hagel and then proceeded with the nomination was a very good sign. But it’s not over yet.
Republicans see the possibility of further weakening and distracting the president by “roughing up” his nominee and will in all likelihood subject Hagel to tough grilling when he finally appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation. Their questions will, no doubt, focus on his support for Israel and his attitudes toward Iran. They will try to beat him into submission, forcing him to use the very shopworn language found the AIPAC letters he refused to sign when he served in the Senate. They will want him to demonstrate that he is more committed to Israel and more hawkish on Iran than he has been in the past.
While I certainly hope that Hagel won’t fold under the pressure, I am bracing myself for a degree of disappointment. And while I believe the president is committed and will fight for his nominee, I am also prepared to acknowledge that Hagel’s confirmation is not a sure thing.
What is at stake for Republicans is far more than just Israel and Iran. It is the entire neo-conservative enterprise that led the U.S. into two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which they cannot admit were failures) and has them still advocating for more aggressive military engagements in Syria and Iran.
A U.S. national security team led by John Kerry and Chuck Hagel will not only be more compatible with President Obama’s world view, but will make possible a dramatic departure from the foreign policy that neo-conservatives have promoted and maintained for the past decade. A confirmation of Hagel will open the door to debate allowing the opportunity for realists to put American national security policy on a more sober and less ideological footing.
A Hagel confirmation, especially if he is resists embracing language that demonstrates subservience to Israel will also represent a threat to the power of the pro-Israel lobby to use intimidation to dictate Congressional behavior.
One thing should be clear, however, and that is if Hagel is confirmed there will not be a radical change in this Administration’s approach to Israel or an American acceptance of an Iran with nuclear weapons. Hagel and Kerry, like Obama, are supporters of Israel. The Administration will continue to support that state’s defense requirements and, in all likelihood, will not rush headlong into a new Middle East peace initiative since they appear to believe that conditions for that simply do not exist. At the same time, Israel will continue to face the U.S.’s growing displeasure with its occupation and settlement policies. And the Administration will not end its pressure on Iran to be more transparent with its nuclear ambitions and agree with international community’s insistence that they forsake advanced enrichment. But the Obama Administration will now be fortified by a team that understands that engagement and not foolish adventurism is the best way to resolve the standoff while insuring that we not be dragged into another potentially devastating Middle East war.
At this point, we know what the stakes are, but have no way of knowing how this will play out. Will Hagel fold? Will Obama surrender to pressure and pull his nominee, risking defeat and embarrassment? Or will the Senate defeat Hagel’s bid for confirmation? Any of these would be a setback of substantial proportions. On the other hand should Hagel stay the course, making clear his support for Israel while asserting his freedom and independence to criticize Israeli policies when necessary, and should Democrats decide to choose to support their president instead of the lobby and the pressure from the neo-cons, then we might well be on our way to a healthier political environment where realism trumps ideology and where honest political differences can be debated in our government without fear of retribution.
The stakes are high, but the outcome is far from certain.
— James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute (AAI) in Washington, DC.