The doings in the US Senate over the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense are illustrative of many things, not all of which are what they seem to be at first glance. We have a few days now before this plays out, and therefore an opportunity to reflect on the dynamics at work here.
I won't bore everyone with a blow-by-blow recitation of what has happened to date. Suffice to say that Hagel's nomination was controversial before it became a reality, in stark contrast to the near-unanimous acclaim that greeted the nomination of John Kerry to be the next Secretary of State — a difference that was reflected in their very different hearings, from Kerry's gracious love-fest to Hagel's vicious grilling, and in the votes in their respective committees and the full Senate.
What purportedly made Hagel controversial were his stands on three issues: (1) Israel, or at least its lobby; (2) Iraq, as in Israel's latest national victim, courtesy of the US and its so-called "coalition of the willing"; and (3) Iran, as in the notional "existential threat" Israel has contrived, and which it hopes to make its next victim — as with Iraq, largely through the use of American military power, economic coercion and diplomatic leverage, alone or in concert with whatever others Washington can entice to join it.
What then ensued was a fascinating political ballet in which Hagel and his Administration backers tried to marshal as much support from Jewish organizations, correspondents and senators as possible, asserting that he was neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic. His opponents – principally AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israel's semi-official lobby in Washington), CUFI (Christians United for Israel, the mostly evangelical "Christian Zionist" step-child of AIPAC), and the assorted neo-conservative "chicken hawks" littering the journalistic and think-tank scene — equally strenuously tried to demonstrate the converse, with the "neo-cons" and CUFI taking more and more of the lead as time went on.
Oddly enough, what the rest of America may have thought about all this largely went unremarked, almost to the extent that one would have thought we had stepped back a few thousand years to a time when the ancient Near East (as it was once called) was the be-all and end-all of what passed for world politics in our part of the world. China? Russia? India? The so-called "war on terror"? The condition of the US military? Only piddly little things when weighed in the political balance against Israel, Israel, and Israel — the Washington counterpart of the realtor's trinity of "location, location, and location."
Looking at the various comments Hagel made over the years, the positions he took, and his votes, it is difficult to see how he could have been construed by anyone to the left of the late and unlamentable Meir Kahane as hostile to Israel as a country. He steadfastly supported it on virtually every issue. He continued to voice support for the moribund "two-state solution," which has been a dead issue for at least the last 300,000 Jewish settlers, if not from the outset. Never did he suggest witholding aid from Israel for its assorted transgressions, much less imposing sanctions on it, but endorsed an approach completely congruent with the positions of moderate-to-liberal pro-Israel Jewish groups such as the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).
His actual lapses were four: (1) he remarked that Israel treated Palestinians like caged animals — true, of course, but one of many unspeakable truths in Washington; (2) he referred to the leverage in Washington of the Jewish lobby, not simply the Israel lobby — also true, as manifested in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (check out its website), of which AIPAC is but one of forty-nine organizations under its umbrella, enhanced by shoals of smaller organizations and individuals; (3) he saw no reason to rush head-long into a war with Iran when there was no hard evidence at all that its actions or intentions posed a threat to anyone else — perfectly reasonable by any standard, and a position shared by the current US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), among many others; and (4) he rejected AIPAC's core principle on Capitol Hill, which is that US senators and representatives should always act as if they were Israeli senators and representatives on any and all matters of even the slightest interest to Israel, and refused to blindly endorse AIPAC's episodic resolutions circulating on Capitol Hill.
The first three lapses were venal sins, and might well have prompted little more than some ritualistic criticism from those who ended up arrayed against him, but the fourth was — to AIPAC and thus to its assorted confederates — a mortal sin, implying that he might stray, and stray far, from the AIPAC-defined political reservation that is its Washington enclave. This is not something AIPAC can tolerate, especially in so critical a position as Secretary of Defense, who in concert with the JCS could actually pose a hurdle to Israel's ambitions. And it was this supposed failing — not actual hostility to Israel and its security, but to AIPAC and its heavy-handed tactics on Capitol Hill — that fueled opposition to Hagel, and the vitriolic attacks and interrogation he encountered (principally from Republicans) in the Senate, and from the neo-conservatives and CUFI more generally.
Hagel was in a unique position to take on AIPAC: 12 years in the Senate, a combat veteran, a good position with the Atlantic Council, and a history of having made more candid comments about Israel and AIPAC than anyone else nominated to such a post for many years. If he had stood by what he had said in the past, he might not have been confirmed – hell, he might not be confirmed anyway! – but the entire issue would have been thrown onto the public screen, thanks to C-SPAN among others, and could have forced a degree of disclosure and open discussion on these issues heretofore unknown. Asked a pointed question, for instance, such as who is intimidated by AIPAC, he could have named names, and no one could have stopped him from doing so. Everyone in the committee room would have cringed, but at least some others elsewhere would have sat up and taken notice. From such small beginnings do great things happen.
But he threw away the chance, recanted everything, apologized for most of his remarks, denied knowing or consorting with people he had to have known well, and ended up asserting that Israel was our best ally in the entire world – God, how our NATO allies, plus South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and others must have laughed — or cringed! It is so bad to see a grown man grovel for the sake of his ambition, and that is just what he did. Yet in fairness, it should not be laid entirely at his door: Had John Kerry been subjected to a comparable eight-hour inquisition, he would not have come out well, either; those exercises could even have had Mother Teresa twisting in the wind.
The best that can be expected right now is a weakened, compromised but almost certainly vengeful Hagel confirmed as Secretary of Defense, with most of his former party arrayed against him. And most of his former Republican colleagues would have to understand that under Secretary Hagel, Pentagon contracts to their states are likely to be few and far between, or at least attributable to Democratic members in their states if they come at all. But Hagel's options are limited. If he does attempt to renege on his mea maxima culpa, his experience before assorted committees in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives would make that in the Senate Armed Services Committee recently seem like a stroll through the Garden of Eden — pre-snake, of course!
The worst is his withdrawal rather than continuing to run the gauntlet of personal attacks, or holding fast yet being rejected for the position – something the neo-cons will assuredly try very hard to accomplish. And they may well do so: the pattern so far is to attack anyone critical of Israel or its supporters, then to extract an apology from them coupled with a retraction of whatever was seen to be offensive, and finally to destroy them anyway. This would put Hagel in the Faustian position of having bartered his ethical soul and his principles away for something snatched from his grasp in the end by a hydra-headed political Mephistopheles.
Whichever happens, we can be sure of one thing: no one with his prospects for achieving a senior cabinet position is likely to be presented for many years to come, if at all. There may not be a magic bullet to end the Zionist domination of the American political process, but in Chuck Hagel, we got a dud. I do not regret supporting him at the beginning, but I wish he had shown more fortitude as the process degenerated — admittedly a lot to ask, but then the position to which he was nominated cries out for someone like that, which it has not had for many years. Well, perhaps next time — if there is one — it'll be a Marine in his place.