Chuck Hagel: why his candidacy for Defense post is losing altitude

Critics of Chuck Hagel's potential candidacy have focused on remarks he made years ago about Israel, Iran, and Hamas. Some even called him anti-Semitic, a charge branded as outrageous, even by other critics.

Dave Kaup/Reuters/File
Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) leaves a news conference in Omaha, Nebraska in 2007. President Barack Obama is expected to announce his nominees for secretaries of state and defense soon, with former Republican senator had been Hagel on the short list of potential choices to head the Pentagon.

President Obama’s potential nomination of Chuck Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, to be his next secretary of Defense is now being dubbed “flailing” before it was even confirmed.

Much of the discussion, and the principal source of Mr. Hagel's vulnerability, revolves around remarks he made, some dating back several years, on US policy toward Israel, Iran, and Hamas. Some critics are wondering aloud whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel, while others are even going so far as to suggest he is anti-Semitic, a charge that Hagel’s defenders, and even some of his detractors, have branded as outrageous.

At issue in particular is Hagel’s use, in a 2006 interview, of the descriptor “Jewish lobby” to refer to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, which includes US Christians, too, and which Hagel accused of “intimidating a lot of people.”

These comments, along with Hagel’s support of dialogue with Iran and Hamas, both sworn enemies of Israel, prompted an unnamed Republican Senate aid, quoted in the conservative Weekly Standard, to promise of the potential nominee, “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.”

On Wednesday these charges were met by a published letter from four former US national security advisers, who wrote to “strongly object, as a matter of substance and as a matter of principle, to the attacks on the character” of Hagel, noting that such treatment will “only discourage future prospective nominees from public service when our country badly needs quality leadership in government.”

Those sentiments aside, Hagel’s former colleagues in the Senate are not exactly rushing to his defense. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who in 2008, as the Republican presidential nominee, said there might be a place for Hagel in his own administration, recently expressed reservations about Hagel’s candidacy for the Defense post, calling his remarks about the Israel lobby “inappropriate.”

"There's no such thing as a Jewish lobby," McCain said when asked about Hagel’s comments. "There's an Armenian lobby, there's not a Jewish lobby. There's an Israeli lobby. It's called AIPAC, very influential."

In Hagel’s defense, meanwhile, some Jewish supporters  have begun to step forward to call the anti-Semitic label not just unfair, but slanderous.

“He’s one of the most experienced and knowledgeable people in American policy today when it comes to national security matters, and I think the president would be very well-served by a veteran with a deep grasp of both the potential and the limitations of military power,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of J Street, a pro-Israel liberal Jewish lobby group.

“The notion that Chuck Hagel is anti-Israel is ludicrous. The notion that he is anti-Semitic is slanderous. He may have used one poor choice of words, but that doesn’t make someone subject to these labels,” Mr. Ben-Ami adds. 

“He has a several decade career of votes and writings and statements that as a whole demonstrate the commitment that he has to Israel.”

That commitment is not, Hagel himself has noted, unconditional. "I'm a United States senator. I support Israel,” he said in the 2006 interview. “But my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president. Not a party. Not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that."  

Hagel has also called for more efforts to be made to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a move that also irked some critics. Until that happens, he said six years ago, “mindless destruction and slaughter will continue in Lebanon, Israel, and across the Middle East.” 

This is a view some US military officials have expressed as well, including retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director – a stance for which they, too, have come under fire.

In March, 2010, while he was the head of US Central Command, which was running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas where US forces operate. 

Israeli-Palestinian tensions “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel,” Petraeus added. “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [area of operations].”

For this reason, Petraeus had reportedly lobbied to make Israel part of his area of responsibility at US Central Command, rather than under the auspices of US European Command, where it had been and where it remains today, as the move was not approved. 

At the time Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, issued a statement calling Petraeus’ testimony “dangerous” by “blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived US favoritism for Israel.” 

Hagel has also advocated dialogue with Iran, which the US and Israel suspect of developing nuclear weapons, and with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist faction that governs the Gaza Strip and is sworn to Israel’s destruction, and made it clear that he believes the Pentagon budget is bloated. He has also been sharply critical of America’s wars of the past decade.

A number of former top US military officials, including James Jones, former national security adviser and the former top officer in the Marine Corps, have come to Hagel’s defense. 

Hagel’s push for dialogue is a product of his infantry experience – he was a decorated enlisted soldier in Vietnam who served alongside his brother – “and that helped him to be in a sense a reluctant warrior,” says retired Lt. General David Barno, who commanded the war in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and served with Hagel on panels about the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The firefights Hagel survived instilled in him a caution that comes with having seen “a lot of young men pay the ultimate price,” Mr. Barno says. “He sees that military forces have to be kept available, but also that we need to be talking to all of our adversaries. That’s not a sign of surrender and weakness – that’s just living in a world where you look at all of the options.”

Hagel’s stance on Israel has been subject to “distortion,” Barno adds. “He’s been a very strong supporter of Israel in legislation over the years – I think he’s probably getting some unfair critiques out there.”

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