Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel was sworn in today as secretary of defense, and yet, as of 3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Israel still exists. So that counts for something, doesn’t it?
The debilitating, sometimes farcical and mainly unserious debate about Hagel’s record has yielded numerous lessons, some of which might have a useful effect on the national discourse if actually understood. Here are a few:
1. The most vicious hatred in Washington is hatred for the apostate. Hagel is the Joe Lieberman of the Republican Party. His betrayal -- to turn on President George W. Bush over Iraq, and to oppose Army General David Petraeus’s Iraq “surge” -- served to exile him forever from the hearts of most of his fellow Republicans.
If you’ve ever spoken to partisan Democrats about Lieberman (who was cast into the wilderness for supporting what Hagel opposed), you’ll know the sound of contempt. Hagel, who won the support of only four Senate Republicans in yesterday’s confirmation vote, won’t win back the affection of his all-but-former party no matter what he does. Washington tribalism, which sacrifices intellectual rigor and moral honesty for thoughtless loyalty, explains the dire need for a third party. Also maybe a fourth party.
2. The pro-Israel lobby (or the “Jewish lobby,” as Hagel, to his discredit and eventual embarrassment, once called it) isn’t quite as powerful as the anti-Israel academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt posit it to be. These men, authors of the polemic “The Israel Lobby,” believe that pro-Israel groups in Washington have a virtual veto over U.S. policy in the Middle East.
But more disinterested (and less Judeophobic) observers have always known that the power of The Lobby (as Walt and Mearsheimer ominously titled it in their original article on the subject) is inferior to the power of President Barack Obama, among others. Pro-Israel groups get what they want when most everyone else wants it as well. Like most effective lobbying groups, they succeed because large numbers of Americans agree with them.
3. A subsidiary observation: AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobbying organization, didn’t oppose Hagel’s nomination, despite the assertions of its adversaries. In fact, the group was assiduously silent on the matter. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee isn’t in the business of lobbying against the president’s personnel choices. The anti-Hagel movement -- at least the part of it that was motivated mainly by preserving close U.S.-Israel relations -- included mostly right-wing, pro-Likud Republican Party activists.
4. These conservative anti-Obama agitators (Obama, of course, was always their real target) did a disservice to their cause by exaggerating Hagel’s faults and spreading malicious gossip about him. At one point, one of the more fanatical of the anti-Hagel campaigners, Ben Shapiro of the Breitbart media combine, suggested that Hagel was supported by a group called “Friends of Hamas,” which, it was soon discovered, doesn’t exist. After Hagel was cleared for confirmation, Shapiro posted to Twitter: “Congrats to Islamists, anti-Semites, isolationists, anti-Israel extremists of all stripes, and people who just wanted a moron as SecDef!”
5. The anti-Hagel agitators also did another disservice, this one to the truth. Hagel’s record on Israel, his understanding of the nature of the Iranian government and his general analysis of Middle East strife are all worthy of close inspection. But just as hysterical and paranoid McCarthyites of the 1950s gave anti-Communism a bad name, the extreme anti-Hagel forces inadvertently turned their target into an object of widespread sympathy, and kept complicated issues from getting properly vetted.
6. Internet arsonists such as Shapiro are working very hard to turn American support for Israel into a partisan issue, so they can reach another goal of theirs: to break the bond between American Jews and the Democratic Party. To date, support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is a bipartisan matter. If Shapiro and Co. succeed in identifying Israel with Republicans, they’ll imperil Israel’s standing in Congress and among ordinary Americans.
A victory by Mitt Romney in November’s presidential election would have freed the not-insubstantial portion of Democrats who are uneasy with the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to become more frankly anti-Israel. This is why smart Israeli politicians worry incessantly about the efforts of Jewish Republicans to cast the Democrats as anti-Zionist devils.
7. The anti-Hagel campaign will probably make the new secretary of defense hesitant to discuss the Israeli-Arab dispute in public. He won’t become an advocate for rethinking the U.S. stance on Hamas any time soon. The counterargument to this observation comes from the former Central Intelligence Agency official Paul Pillar, who, writing in the National Interest, argues that Hagel may now feel free to speak his mind because “it’s not as if he ever will face another confirmation vote in the Senate.”
This may be true, but it might not matter much in the formulation of policy. Because Hagel is now an employee of the president, and the president is the one who sets policy on Iran, on Middle East peace, and on everything else. So Hagel will have the opportunity to argue with him, but it’s unlikely Hagel will express his freelance opinions publicly. If Obama eventually chooses to use military force to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Hagel will be the one to carry out his instructions. If Obama decides not to use force, it won’t be because of Hagel.
The ultimate question, never really examined in this dysfunctional process, is whether Hagel is qualified to manage a department that has a budget of more than $600 billion, employs roughly 718,000 civilians, oversees more than 1.4 million military personnel, and is undergoing some of the most controversial budget cuts in a generation while attempting to end a decade-long war and protect American interests around the world.
This seems like a fairly important area to explore.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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