Anyone who watched Chuck Hagel’s lamentable performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week had to conclude that the man is inadequate at best, woeful at worst, as the choice for the next Secretary of Defense. Here was a nominee who did not even know the Obama Administration’s position on Iranian nukes (he said it was containment but was quickly corrected and told it was prevention). At a time when the United States faces formidable national security threats from so many parts of the globe, it’s pretty obvious that a muddled, befuddled, and at times incoherent candidate for Secretary of Defense is a calamity in the making.
Then there is Hagel’s disastrous history of predictions, like the comment in his 2008 book, America: Our Next Chapter, where he wrote, “America’s refusal to recognize Iran’s status as a legitimate power does not decrease Iran’s influence, but rather increases it.” This was just one year before the government of Iran began to mow down its own citizens in the streets of Tehran in order to protect that ‘legitimacy’.
Or Hagel’s opposition to the Iraq surge, predicting, in January 2007, that it would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder . . . since Vietnam,” an utterly erroneous prognostication that he was correctly hammered on by John McCain at the hearings.
Or Hagel’s 1998 meeting with the elder Assad in Syria, where he said, “Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun.” Tell that to the sixty thousand dead who have been slaughtered by the dictator’s son.
Add to the fact that Hagel has an irrational dislike of homosexuals, voted against Iran sanctions, and believes America should be talking to terrorist organizations and Obama’s nomination becomes downright mystifying.
But what’s even more confusing is how quickly so many Jewish groups – especially AIPAC – have caved on Hagel. The same man who said that Israel didn’t need to “keep Palestinians caged up like animals,” and famously spoke of “the Jewish lobby’s” intimidation of lawmakers on Capitol Hill has been handed a get-out-of-political-purgatory-free card by many who claim to be Israel’s foremost defenders.
Senator Chuck Schumer was skeptical about Hagel but then changed his mind after a 90 minute West Wing meeting. “Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel,” Schumer said, “I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.” Impressive. An hour-and-a-half conversation undid a twelve-year voting record, which included, as recently as 2008, a vote against an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization. Schumer is often referred to as the most influential Jewish member of the Senate. But then how could verbal assurances alone have turned him around when he is surely aware of the Jewish teaching that it is not what a man says but what he does that matters?
The Daily Beast reported that AIPAC – whose annual Policy Conference in DC I have attended for 20 years as a huge fan and supporter – has chosen to sit the Hagel nomination out, desiring as they do a positive relationship with the Pentagon and believing that President Obama has enough votes to get him confirmed.
On the surface that seems a wise choice. Why make enemies, especially if they’re going to be in powerful positions?
But what comes to mind is the famous teaching of Hillel, “If not now, when?” If you don’t use your political influence to oppose the nomination of someone who said, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator,” with its regrettable allusion to charges of Jewish dual loyalties, and who opposed sanctions against Iran, and who called for direct negotiations with Hezbollah and Hamas, then when will you speak up?
Indeed, demonstrating a complete absence of political will to oppose a man like Hagel has its own risks.
What are brave United States lawmakers like freshman Senator Ted Cruz of Texas to make of AIPAC’s surrender? Are they to feel that they are the ones charged with protecting Israel while organizations who stated purpose it is to do just that sit on the sidelines?
In the hearings Cruz aired a clip from Al Jazeera where Hagel appeared to agree with a caller who accused Israel of atrocities. Cruz said: “The caller suggests that the nation of Israel has committed war crimes, and your response to that was not to dispute that characterization.” Cruz then asked Hagel directly whether he thinks Israel was guilty of war crimes, saying the suggestion was “particularly offensive given that the Jewish people suffered under the most horrific war crimes in the Holocaust… I would also suggest that for … a prospective secretary of Defense not to take issue with that claim is highly troubling.”
And what should Senator Jim Inhofe be thinking? Of Hagel’s views on America’s relationship with Iran and Israel, he said, “Too often it seems he’s willing to subscribe to a worldwide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.” Should Inhofe be protecting Israel more than AIPAC?
Then there is Senator Lindsay Graham who defended the pro-Israel lobby by pressuring a cowering Hagel to admit he could not name a single lawmaker who had ever been intimidated by those scary Jews. Graham predicted that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic Secretary of Defense toward the State of Israel in our nation’s history.”
Perhaps the pro-Israel lobby as a whole can learn how to stand up for itself from its LGBT counterpart. In 1998 Hagel’s homophobia once more manifest itself in his opposition to President Clinton’s appointing Jim Hormel as Ambassador to Luxembourg, stating that he was “openly, aggressively gay.” The Human Rights campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights advocacy group, recently demanded that Hagel apologize for the disgusting remark. Sure enough, Hagel apologized which just goes to show you that not everyone is afraid of alienating a potentially powerful member of the Cabinet.
How ironic that pro-Israel groups have themselves proven the falsity of Hagel’s defamatory claims of intimidation. It turns out that even when it comes to nominees with deeply troubling records on Israel, they have little bark and still lesser bite.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.