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The Israel Lobby vs. President Obama: What the Chuck Hagel Fight Really Means

The up-in-the-air nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense Secretary has become a test of whether the Israel Lobby can still shoot down an American public servant who is deemed insufficiently passionate regarding Israel.
 
 
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Chuck Hagel on a trip to Iraq
Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Casey Jones/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

The Israel Lobby is hell bent on sabotaging President Barack Obama’s tentative plan to appoint former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. And – with Obama now dithering about this selection – the Lobby and its neocon allies sense another impending victory.

Perhaps The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck  described Hagel’s predicament best in assessing why the Israel Lobby is so determined to destroy the Nebraska Republican though he is “a committed supporter of Israel.”

But, as Bruck explained, “Hagel did not make the obeisance to the lobby that the overwhelming majority of his Congressional colleagues do. And he further violated a taboo by talking about the lobby, and its power.” Hagel had the audacity, in an interview for a 2008 book, to say something that you are not supposed to say in Official Washington, that the Israel Lobby pulls the strings on many members of Congress.

In Aaron Miller’s book, The Much Too Promised Land, Hagel is quoted as saying that Congress “is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage.” He added that when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, “you’ll get eighty or ninety senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters” — because, he added, they were “stupid.”

Finding Other Reasons

Yes, it’s true that when the neocon editors of the Washington Post  decried the prospect of Hagel’s appointment to run the Pentagon, they cited a bunch of other reasons without mentioning Hagel’s independent thinking regarding Israel. For instance, the Post’s editors fretted over a September 2011  interview with the Financial Times, in which Hagel said, “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated. … So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” What heresy!

The Post’s editors also questioned Hagel’s interest in avoiding another war with Iran, calling his interest in meaningful engagement with Iran “isolated.” The Post noted that Hagel “repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior.”

Though the Post noted that Hagel also wrote an  op-ed last September that contained the usual refrain about “keeping all options on the table,” the neocon editors worried that a Defense Secretary Hagel might not be enthusiastic enough in carrying out the war option against Iran. Obama “will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision,” the Post wrote.

Yet, despite the Post’s avoidance of any mention about the controversy over Hagel and the Israel Lobby, you can bet that the editors were particularly worried that Hagel might become a strong voice within the Obama administration against simply following Israel’s lead on issues in the Middle East.

If Obama were to actually nominate Hagel– rather than just float his name as a trial balloon and recoil at all the efforts to prick holes in it – the message would be a strong one to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel Lobby that the old rules for the game are changing, that they can no longer blackball American public servants from key jobs in Washington.

Defecting on Iraq War

As a two-term senator, Chuck Hagel’s other real sin was that he was one of the few defectors among congressional Republicans regarding the Iraq War. Though Hagel voted for President George W. Bush’s war authorization, he eventually recognized his mistake and fessed up.

 
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