Politico reports that President Obama, having just backed down from one major Senate confirmation fight, may be running headlong into another one, as “some in the Jewish community and other Israel backers are reacting with alarm to reports that Obama is preparing to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.” Politico adds that “Obama will have to assess how big a furor pro-Israel forces will raise and whether the White House wants to deal with it.”
My thesis about Hagel is that Obama wants to nominate him precisely because it will upset “some in the Jewish community and other Israel backers.” This is a fight Obama is confident he can win, since Hagel is a former Republican Senator. And by winning it, Obama believes he will cut the Jewish lobby down to size.
That the Jewish lobby needs to be cut down is axiomatic among a certain type of Washington pol. The Politico article makes this clear. Acknowledging that Hagel has been a leader among those who denounce the supposed power of the Jewish lobby, Politico turns to Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, for an explanation:
Anybody who has ever talked to senators or congressmen behind closed doors knows you hear a lot of that,” Kurtzer said. “A lot of people won’t talk about that publicly, but Hagel talks about it in public. One can question whether it’s good politics from his standpoint, but it’s not a view that’s foreign on the Hill.”
Can anyone doubt that Obama falls within the substantial circle of politicans that bitterly resents the Israel lobby? This is the man who spiritually followed the rabidly anti-Israel Rev. Wright; who gave a tribute to former PLO operative Rashid Khalidi so explosive that it has never seen the light of day; who has never visited Israel during his time in office, despite having been as close as thirty minutes away in Egypt, and managing to go to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraq; who told Jewish leaders in July 2009 that he was deliberately adopting a policy of putting daylight between America and Israel; and who snubbed Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington DC and complained to Nicolas Sarkozy about having to deal with the Israeli prime minister.
Is there a better explanation for Hagel’s status as front-runner for the Pentagon job than the desire to stick it to the Israeli lobby, and indeed to Israel? Bill Kristol attributes Hagel’s front-runner status to the fact that Hagel was a Republican Senator, which means that Obama might get credit for bipartisanship. But the criticism Obama receives from Israel’s supporters, and the uncomfortable position in which the nomination will place Democrats like Sen. Schumer, will more than offset any points for “reaching across the aisle.” The primary manifestation of any bipartisanship will be the shared heartburn that certain Republicans and Democrats would feel when they vote to confirm Hagel.
But perhaps Hagel is the best man for the job? I suppose he could seem that way if you dislike Israel enough. Otherwise, don’t make me laugh. I assume that Hagel is reasonably knowledgeable about defense issues, but no more so than scores, if not hundreds, of others. And Hagel has no background in successfully managing, or helping to manage, large bureaucracies remotely comparable to the Pentagon. The only things that distinguishes him is (1) his extreme aversion to sending troops into combat and (2) what Kristol demonstrates to be his “anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides.” For Obama, apparently, this is more than sufficient.
If Obama were basing his decision on merit, he probably wouldn’t look any further than Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. But nominating Carter wouldn’t stick it to Israel. And that, according to my thesis, puts him behind Hagel on Obama’s list.
JOHN adds: Hagel also represents an opportunity for a “bipartisan” choice that actually is a poke in the eye to President Bush and Republicans generally. Recall when Hagel denounced the proposed surge in Iraq as “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.” No doubt that is what Obama thought at the time, too.