Chuck Hagel’s charm offensive

The Washington Post reports that Secretary of Defense Hagel is taking his “charm offensive” to Israel. At first blush, this seems like a difficult task. Most of the few people Hagel has ever been able to charm (the Steve Clemons’ of the world and, to be fair, apparently Barack Obama) seem to have been won over in part by his anti-Israel barbs.

But we shouldn’t forget about handwritten thank-you notes. According to the Post, such notes helped win over Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. In February, McKeon urged President Obama to ditch Hagel and “go back to the drawing board.” But now, he gives Hagel an “A” for his performance to date.

Why the change? According to the Post, McKeon says it’s because of simple courtesies. Hagel invited him to the swearing-in ceremony, rearranged his schedule so he could meet with McKeon when both were in Kabul, and sent him handwritten thank-you notes.

Apparently, the head of the House Armed Services Committee equates currying his favor through personal gestures with strong performance of the work of the Secretary of Defense.

Israeli officials presumably can expect simple courtesies from Hagel when he visits Israel. But Hagel need not bother. He’s the Secretary of Defense of Israel’s key ally, so the Israeli government has little choice but to pretend to be charmed.

The important thing is that they not delude themselves into believing that Hagel’s courtesies trump a lifetime of openly expressed hostility towards Israel. I don’t think they will. Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t Buck McKeon.

Nor, I should add, are all Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. During a recent hearing of that committee, Mac Thornberry told Hagel that “there’s a widespread view that you were brought into the Pentagon to cut defense.” Hagel replied that Obama had never told him to “cut the heart out of the Pentagon.”

We should, I suppose, be thankful for small mercies. But Thornberry wasn’t impressed. “I guess I was hoping for a stronger answer,” he said.