The Israel Lobby vs. President Obama: What the Chuck Hagel Fight Really Means
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Hagel said he believes the Iraq War was one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history. He sharply criticized the Bush/Cheney foreign policy as “reckless,” saying it was playing “ping pong with American lives.” Such comments have made Hagel particularly unpopular with the top tier of hawkish Republican senators, such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona.
But Hagel’s ultimate offense, as far as Official Washington is concerned, is his unusual record of independent thinking that could, in Israel’s eyes, endanger or even derail business as usual with the U.S. He is considered a realist, a pragmatist. Moreover, there can hardly be a more offensive remark to Israeli ears than the one made by Hagel to author Aaron Miller reflecting the sad state of affairs in Congress:
“The Jewish Lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” [on the Hill], but “I’m a United States Senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
This remark, and others like it, have raised doubts in Israeli and pro-Israeli circles as to whether Hagel has the requisite degree of “passionate attachment” to Israel. This has generated a volley of vicious invective characterized so well by former Ambassador Chas Freeman in “ Israel Lobby Takes Aim Again.” This invective is aimed at forcing Obama to drop any plan to put Hagel in charge of the Pentagon. After all, it takes courage to counter character assassination.
Why the Fear?
What really lies behind this? I suspect the fear is that, were Hagel to become Secretary of Defense, he would take a leaf out of his book as Senator and openly insist, in effect, that he is the American Secretary of Defense and not the Israeli Defense Minister.
This, in turn, gives rise to a huge question being whispered in more and more corridors of power in Washington: Is Israel an asset or a liability to the U.S., when looked at dispassionately in the perspective of our equities in the Middle East and our general strategic defense?
Hardly a new conundrum. Many decades ago, Albert Einstein, who feared the consequences of creating a “Jewish state” by displacing or offending Arabs, wrote:
“There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us [Jews] and the Arab people. Despite the great wrong that has been done us [in the western world], we must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people. … Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.”
Realpolitik, including the increasing isolation of Israel and the U.S. in the Middle East, is breathing some life into this old attitude and generating consideration of a new approach – necessity being the mother of invention.
Few have been as blunt, though, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has been described as the “unofficial dean of the realist school of American foreign policy experts.” In a recent talk, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter minced no words:
“I don’t think there is an implicit obligation for the United States to follow like a stupid mule whatever the Israelis do. If they decide to start a war, simply on the assumption that we’ll automatically be drawn into it, I think it is the obligation of friendship to say, ‘you’re not going to be making national decisions for us.’ I think that the United States has the right to have its own national security policy.”
Even Petraeus Lets It Slip Out
Back when Gen. David Petraeus was head of CENTCOM, he addressed this issue, gingerly but clearly, in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010 on the “challenges to security and stability” faced by the U.S.: