Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Hagelian Dialectic

January 4, 2013 11:27 am 4 comments

The Chuck Hagel trial balloon has been aloft for weeks now, not to burst or land – since its lofting was never officially acknowledged – until either he or someone else is officially nominated for Secretary of Defense. What conclusions may be drawn without tendentiousness?

Above all, we see a pattern, oft repeated, of charge and counter charge between supporters of Israel and critics of Israel and American policy toward Israel, using the same language each time, making similar tenuous accusations and identical unsubstantiated claims. It is a fake dialogue – because no genuine interchange is intended – that cannot reach a synthesis because on neither side is the true, greater argument sufficiently the focus of attention.

In detail, first, even if one is both a strong supporter of Israel and of President Obama, even if one is generally admiring of the President’s foreign policy and holds no doubt of his commitment to the security of Israel in even the ultimate circumstances, nonetheless, the weakest part of that foreign policy has regarded Israel. About Israel, the President has demonstrated the tinniest of ears and spoken with the most recurring hiccups. Even if, ultimately, he nominates someone other than Hagel, the very idea that Obama considered him will have served only to foster greater mistrust among the already mistrustful.

Gil Troy, writing at Open Zion, has done the best, most balanced writing on this subject. Perhaps overstating the case in both directions, Troy has nonetheless noted a schism in the President’s foreign policy inclinations, between McGovern and Kissinger.

The question of where Obama stands regarding Israel has often pivoted on this deeper question of which Obama shows up when doing foreign policy. His conjuring up of an American-Muslim heritage in Cairo, his dithering before supporting Iran’s Green Revolution, his historically sloppy comparisons between Palestinians and African-Americans, and his occasional “tough-love” approach to Israel, all expressed his inner McGovern—revealing how a position that appears lovely and idealistic often becomes morally myopic. But supporting Israel militarily, endorsing Israel’s defensive war against Hamas missiles, and backing Israel in the U.N., have all expressed his inner Kissinger—sprinkled with a dash of nobility and idealism worthy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Given Obama’s difficulties with the Jewish community, some unwarranted, others clearly created on his own, and there being no upside to a Hagel trial balloon and even greater downside to his actual nomination, one can only wonder, “What was he thinking?”

Second, there has been excess, as there often is in these cases, in the reaction to Hagel. Once again, the dispute has been unnecessarily and uncertainly personalized and driven by identity politics.

Let us observe, as the evidence seems clearly to suggest, that Israel and even Jews hold no special place in Chuck Hagel’s human sympathies and affections. So? How much does any randomly chosen American, Israeli, or Jew care about Ghanaians? Or the Aymara Indians of Bolivia? Everyone need not care all that much about Jews or Israel. That does not make anyone anti-Israel or even an anti-Semite, even if the occasional politically incorrect, clumsy locution escapes his lips. Yet as is often the case, some Jews and other supporters of Israel have responded to an unsympathetic political actor like Hagel with tenuous charges of animus and even anti-Semitism. This serves only to focus the debate on identity politics and group influence rather than on profound and outstanding principles.

The outstanding instance of this tendency occurred where such misbehaviors can be frequently found, somewhere in the vicinity of Bill Kristol, whether at the Emergency Committee for Israel or The Weekly Standard, which early headlined the threat of an anonymous senate aid,

Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.

The ugliest manifestation of that quote, beside its anonymity, is the charge of anti-Semite brandished as black mail threat: no honest commitment to exposing anti-Semitism just on its virtues, but only as a threat of character assassination to gain the upper hand in political warfare. Proud work, that – work that honestly earns the counter-charge of “smear” otherwise flung so carelessly and ignorantly by Israel’s programmatic Western foes.

However, in any widespread contention, there will be people who behave badly. There is no party discipline in public debate. The greater empirical truth is that such cheap resort to name-calling has been relatively rare, and most of it, if one investigates, from minor figures. Troy in his own searches discovered what I did, that when searching the Internet for “Chuck Hagel” and “anti-Semite” what one finds in overwhelming abundance are links to writing objecting to Hagel being called an anti-Semite rather than the few mostly unknown figures who have actually called him that.

This leads to a third point in detail – the nature of the response, whenever these affairs arise, from those whose program it is to criticize Israel and object to American support of Israel. First, they will decry the influence of the Israeli lobby – influence and support they wish they had themselves. Second, in the manner of the arch smear monger himself, Glenn Greenwald, they will accuse critics of someone like Hagel of smearing him, when they themselves have little understanding of, or concern for, the easy distinction between a smear and a criticism. Third, in the most extraordinary cases, such as that of Charles Freeman over three years ago, and now Hagel, portions of the foreign policy and journalism establishments will rise in defense of their now current standard bearer – this last even when, as now, it produces the incongruity of firm liberals providing very weak evidence in support of a very conservative figure they would otherwise vigorously oppose.

That incongruity, however, points us to that true, greater argument that should always be the focus in these debates, not the question of Jews and who loves them or hates them, or whether “they” have too much influence. Chuck Hagel did not need to be the second Jewish senator from Nebraska. One need be no anglophile to recognize England as a proper ally, or sacrifice one’s peeves with the French to know we would back them, again, against an intolerant aggressor. No less the South Koreans, the Aussies.

In his recent series of posts on Hagel, Steve Clemons of the Atlantic posed the following questions to a collection of experts almost universally supportive of Hagel’s foreign policy views on Israel:

Others argue that Hagel has been supportive of Israel’s interests but in a way that doesn’t make a false choice between Israel and Arab states and doesn’t compromise core US national security interests.  Do you think his views on US-Israel relations are disturbing, unconstructive and disqualifying?  Do you believe that Hagel is an enemy of Israel?  Or do you find his views, if you are familiar with them, constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy?

These are all the reasonable or currently relevant questions to ask.

The suggestion itself that there is a “false choice” between Israel and, generally, the Arab States is the essential reason – and not philo or anti-Semitism – that Hagel is the wrong choice, and the defense of him mistaken. Is there a false choice between democracy and autocracy? Between modern liberalism and, often, medieval religious fanaticism? Is the there a false choice between the Enlightenment and a belief in the personal integrity of the individual – in human and civil rights on the one hand, and on the other, nations whose cultures frequently remain infected by misogyny, homophobia, and the vilest forms of anti-Semitism? The very idea that fundamental alliance with either Israel or the Arab states presents a false choice, and that such are the terms on which defenders of Hagel might offer their defense is reason alone to reject his nomination. Was it a false choice between Western Europe and the Soviet Bloc? Between South and North Korea? Kosovo and Serbia?

There is, indeed, an American foreign policy culture that has long excused the sins of the Arab world and minimized its stark differences from the Israeli state. They have had their economic or cultural reasons, or a commitment to foreign policy “realism.” But there is no reason that supporters, not only of Israel, but of all those Enlightenment and liberal democratic virtues should welcome as Secretary of Defense a man who in his policy stances has not sufficiently recognized the stark differences in this choice, or who garners his defense from others who similarly fail to recognize them.

When we hear spoken the idea that support of Israel might “compromise core US national security interests,” we must ask how it compromises US security interests to align the nation always with liberal democracies against undemocratic and repressive states. When, in the history of the United States, would anyone advocating for a cabinet position have wished to argue that the U.S. had been wrong, and had compromised core security interests by supporting allied democracies against surrounding undemocratic, repressive, and intolerant states that threatened them? Should we not now be supportive of Poland against potential threats from Russia? Australia against a terrorizing China? Which advocates of American foreign policy would deem these “false choices”?

All of these questions culminate in the proposal by Clemons that Hagel’s views might constitute “constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy.” Realistic and constructive to oppose terror designation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard? To oppose urging the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, as the U.S. has done? To oppose economic sanctions on Iran, leaving only the choices of either, ultimately, armed conflict or dangerously naive faith in the possibility of negotiated settlement without coercive influence?

It is easy to argue that Hagel misperceives the nature of contending forces in a crucial geopolitical area. His advocacy of ending sanctions against Cuba is empirically well-founded. His refusal as a senator to acknowledge the Armenian genocide (facing none of the practical exigencies of a president, perhaps, to demur), suggests a similar realism ill-founded in a commitment to historical truth and humane international values, and this curiously aligns him in the current uproar with elements of the left critical of Israel for supposedly inhumane treatment of Palestinians. But then foreign policy realism contradictorily married to an agenda other than self-interest will always produce contradiction. Thus many Israelis and supporters of Israel had no difficulty criticizing the Obama administration for not fully supporting the Mubarak tyranny even in the face of a full popular uprising against it – even as Israel rightly touts its commitment to democratic values. Thus many on the left now run to the Republican Hagel’s defense – even as they oppose nearly everything else for which he has stood.

It is not only easy to argue that Hagel is wrong on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a strong and coherent argument can be made, on the historical evidence and the merits, that his misperception of the Middle East has broader implications worldwide. The argument can be made on its merits. To support Israel is to support democracy and liberal values. To support Israel against the repressive, intolerant, and often inhumane regimes that have hatefully and violently sought to destroy it even before its birth is to support all the virtues for which the American and Western democracies are supposed to stand – for which Western and American liberals are supposed to stand. The choice could not be starker, the implications in a post 9/11 world could not be bolder, the failure of vision through the wrong choice could not be greater.

What those committed to a wise and broad American foreign policy vision need care about is that nominees for foreign policy positions share this vision.  That is the ground, the honest and sufficient ground on which the battle should be fought. All the rest is a distraction or a cynical manipulation to other ends.


  • Most disturbing: the fact that this American president would even consider such a problematic choice as Hagel proves yet again how naive those liberal 70% of American Jewish voters were, you know, the ones who ridiculed the other 30% like myself as being entirely incorrect as to Obama’s support for the well- being and security of the Jewish State.

  • Most disturbing: the fact that this American president would even consider such a problematic choice as Hagel proves yet again how naive those 70% of American Jewish voters were, who ridiculed the other 70% like myself as being entirely incorrect as to his support for the security of the Jewish State.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Features Opinion Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Late Friday night, on November 13, I was headed for bed when an ominous news bulletin flashed across my computer screen – something about a shooting in Paris. It wasn’t long before the “small number” of shootings and casualties began to double and triple and quadruple. The locations of attacks seemed crazily disorganized, and the tweets and videos became more and more horrifying. It was a long night for many stunned observers. We tried to understand what was happening, and […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Theater BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    In an interview with the Israeli site nrg on Wednesday, Belgian-Jewish stage actress Noemi Schlosser recounted immigrating to Israel after her career in Europe was destroyed by BDS. Schlosser said she had enjoyed success in Belgium and international acclaim until she was targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for her pro-Israel stance during Operation Protective Edge — last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. She described watching the theaters where she performed go from packed to nearly empty over a short period of […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →