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Gung-ho militarists use antisemitic smear to block Obama’s choices

In this posting, 1) Richard Cohen on political language and what Israelis themselves write; 2) Robert Wright on the failed first neo-con attack last December; 3) Fred Kaplan on the real reasons for opposing Obama’s choice of Hagel.

Senator Chuck Hagel touring Amman, Jordan with President Obama 2008. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP

The tarring of Chuck Hagel

By Richard Cohen, Washington Post
 January 07, 2013

Before they were girls, they were women. Before that, they were girls. I am not talking here of the chronology of females but of acceptable usage. Back in the 1970s, for instance, the use of “girl” could trigger a stinging rebuke and the damning charge of male-chauvinist piggism — or why else would a man call a woman a girl? This was the Golden Age of political correctness, which now, it seems, has its last redoubt on, of all places, the opinion pages of the robustly anti-PC Wall Street Journal.

There, Chuck Hagel is accused of uttering the no-no phrase “the Jewish lobby” — supposedly a virtual confession of anti-Semitism.

The absurdity of this charge, leveled last month by editorial writer and columnist Bret Stephens, ought to be apparent to anyone who reads what Israelis themselves write. I direct Stephens and others to page 426 of Anita Shapira’s new book, “Israel: A History.” She writes that when the George H.W. Bush administration in 1992 withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir “enlisted the help of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Congress, but in vain.” Shapira is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

It is true, as Stephens writes, that Jews are not the only ones who support Israel, and it is likewise true that not all Jews support Israel — or at least the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. But Stephens’s real beef with Hagel is not over speech but policy. Not only does the former Nebraska senator and Barack Obama’s choice for defense secretary march to a different drummer, but in some cases the average ear can hear no drummer at all. On Iran, for instance, Hagel’s preferred policy — no sanctions but lots of talk — would hardly compel Tehran to abandon its (strongly) suspected nuclear weapons program. That may not happen anyway, but there’s something to be said for the effort.

I, too, have some qualms about Hagel. He earned his wariness of war the hard way — two Purple Hearts in Vietnam — but sometimes muscle, not talk, is what works. And he has been remarkably retrograde when it comes to homosexuality. He opposed a Clinton administration ambassadorial nominee for being “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel has since recanted — openly and aggressively.

The very best thing about Obama’s choice of Hagel for the Pentagon is that the president did not back down, as he did with Susan Rice. A number of Hagel’s fellow Republicans promise a fight, but they probably don’t have the votes to block the nomination. Whatever his views, Hagel will be an implementer of policy, not its originator. Bob Gates, another Republican who served as Obama’s defense secretary, opposed U.S. intervention in Libya. Obama went ahead anyway, and Gates made it happen. This is the way it’s supposed to work.

The most depressing aspect of Hagel’s nomination is not his severe case of Vietnam Syndrome and not even some of his foreign policy views. It’s been the unremitting and underhanded attack on him, especially the imputation of anti-Semitism. In fact, he could be the necessary corrective to the Netanyahu government’s expectation that anything Israel wants from Washington it’s entitled to get. Nothing Hagel has said about Israel is not said in the Israeli press on a daily basis. Trust me: By the Wall Street Journal’s standards, Israeli media would be deeply anti-Semitic.

I thought the day had long passed when a skeptical attitude toward this or that Israeli policy would trigger charges of anti-Semitism. The accusation is so powerful — so freighted with images of the Holocaust — that it tends to silence all but the bravest or the most foolish. Israeli policy of late has been denounced by some steadfast champions of the Jewish state — the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman or the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, for example — so being caustically critical is hardly evidence of anti-Semitism. Rather, it can be a sign of good judgment, not to mention a caring regard for the aspirations of Zionism.

The article that implied Hagel was a touch anti-Semitic was headlined “Chuck Hagel’s Jewish Problem” and suggested that Hagel’s statement that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” in Congress had “the odor” of prejudice. A PC sort of guy might have put things more delicately: If there is an odor here, however, it is not the rancid stench of anti-Semitism but instead of character assassination.

Chuck Hagel and the Neocon Smear Machine

By Robert Wright, The Atlantic
December 19, 2012

Reports that President Obama may nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense haven’t been well received at The Weekly Standard. In pre-emptively opposing the nomination, the neoconservative magazine is employing what you might call a two-tiered strategy: the low road and the lower road.

The low road is taken by the Standard‘s editor, Bill Kristol. He writes that Hagel is “anti-Israel,” and then follows this assertion with a series of facts that don’t corroborate it. Of course, as Kristol surely knows, “anti-Israel” is taken by some people as code for “anti-Semitic.” As for those Weekly Standard readers who don’t interpret the term that way — well, that’s what the lower road is for. A separate story written by a Standard staffer quotes a top Republican Senate aide saying flat out that Hagel is anti-Semitic.

If you’re wondering who that aide is, I have bad news for you: The Standard doesn’t tell us, so we have no way of being sure that this person even exists. To students of American history, this tactic — conveying vicious accusations while cloaking their source — may sound familiar, because it’s the way Joseph McCarthy used to operate. What it’s not is the way a magazine with integrity operates. But I guess it shouldn’t surprise us, given some of the Weekly Standard‘s previous behavior

Meanwhile, Kristol’s ideological kin are getting into the spirit of things. The Washington Post‘s neocon blogger, Jennifer Rubin, quotes Abe Foxman saying Hagel’s views “border on anti-Semitism.”

In case you don’t know who Abe Foxman is, he’s the guy who believes that, though Jews can build synagogues wherever they want, and Christians can build churches wherever they want, Muslims shouldn’t build mosques wherever they want. (This may sound like a bigoted position, but it’s grounded in respect for relatives of 9/11 victims, whose anguish, says Foxman, “entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”)

The other thing you should know about Foxman is that he’s head of the Anti-Defamation League. So far as I can tell, that means he’s opposed to defamation unless the target is (1) a Muslim who aspires to build a mosque in the wrong place; or (2) someone whose views on Israel don’t meet with his approval — in which case he’ll personally do the defaming.

What is the evidence that Chuck Hagel is anti-Semitic, or at least borderline anti-Semitic? Apparently he once said, “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [on Capitol Hill].” The Weekly Standard‘s anonymous “top Republican Senate aide” is quoted as calling this “the worst kind of anti-Semitism” because it means Hagel “believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy.”

Actually, it doesn’t mean that. It means what it says: Hagel believes that AIPAC, like the NRA, is powerful enough to sometimes intimidate legislators. Now, it does follow that AIPAC and the NRAinfluence policy in their domains, but not that they “control” it. If this “top Republican Senate aide” doubts that AIPAC or the NRA influence policy via intimidation, that’s just more reason to wonder whether such a person actually exists. I don’t see how you could work in the Senate and be sentient and be oblivious to such facts.

The other complaint about Hagel’s quote, expressed by neoconservative Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, is that Hagel used the term “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby”. This is actually a valid criticism, because the Israel lobby does in fact include lots of Christian Zionists, and for that matter doesn’t include lots of Jews. On the other hand, “Jewish lobby” was once the standard term for what is now called the Israel lobby (especially back when the term was closer to being accurate, before Christian Zionism became a big political force). And it doesn’t seem to me that it’s an indictable offense for a guy Hagel’s age to have on one occasion used this once-accepted term — especially in light of the fact that he subsequently acknowledged it was the wrong term to use.

At any rate, this isolated Hagel quote certainly doesn’t justify Stephens’ clear insinuation that Hagel is anti-Semitic. (“Prejudice … has an olfactory element,” writes Stephens, and in Hagel’s case “the odor is especially ripe.”) Neither does any other “evidence” Stephens adduces — such as the fact that not many Jews live in Nebraska, the state Hagel represented as a senator.

I’ll leave further debunking of the anti-Semitism charge against Hagel to (Jewish Zionist) Peter Beinart at Open Zion. Meanwhile I’ll underscore his fellow Open Zion blogger Ali Gharib’s point that it’s ironic for Hagel to be pilloried for saying that politicians are intimidated by a pro-Israel lobby — when those doing the pillorying bear a striking resemblance to a pro-Israel lobby trying to intimidate a politician. (Note the headline on that Weekly Standard piece: “Senate Aide: ‘Send Us Hagel and We Will Make Sure Every American Knows He Is an Anti-Semite'” I don’t suppose that’s an attempt to intimidate anyone?)

I should have put “pro-Israel” in quotes, because, as I’ve said again and again, people who are “pro-Israel” in a right-wing sense of the term favor policies that are, in my view, bad for Israel. And that’s especially true of the group I’m talking about now: not neocons in general (many of whom are honorable people who fight clean and don’t make ad hominem attacks), but the subset of neocons (Kristol, Rubin, Stephens, et. al.) who try not just to counter arguments they disagree with but to stigmatize the people who make them. This subset of neocons — the neocon smear machine — has long prevented an open and honest American discussion of Israel, and as a result America, the country with the most influence over Israel, has indulged Israel’s worst, most self-destructive tendencies.

The most obviously self-destructive tendency — the endless building of illegal settlements in the West Bank — reached a kind of culmination this year, as the greenlighting of the infamous E1 settlement project made it clear to all but the most deluded observers that a two-state solution will never happen. Which means sooner or later we’ll almost certainly wind up with a one-state solution — either a one-state solution that preserves Zionism but makes Israel literally an apartheid state or a one-state solution that marks the end of Zionism.

The latter scenario wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster. It’s possible for Arabs and Jews to live side by side in peace as citizens of a single state that encompasses the occupied territories. But it will take some work, and in any event it won’t be welcomed by the people whose defaming of Israel’s critics has done so much to make this the only likely alternative to apartheid.

Over the past year, as I’ve written about Israel critically and gotten a milder version of the kind of blowback Hagel is getting, my view of the people generating it has changed. I used to think that all the “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitism” charges were just cynical smears, and I still think some of them are. But I also think some of them come from people who genuinely believe that any severe critic of Israel speaks out of malice. These people are blinded by their passions, and the fact that their smears are wild and unfounded doesn’t mean they’re insincere.

Still, these smears have been hugely counterproductive from a truly pro-Zionist standpoint. What you’re seeing now is one of the final desperate spasms of a group that has already helped destroy the thing it loves, and will probably destroy a few other things before finally, like Joseph McCarthy, destroying itself and receding mercifully into the pages of history.

Postscript: Already, Hagel has been defended by a strikingly diverse array of voices, including (in addition to people I mentioned in the piece) Dana Milbank of the Washington PostJohn Judis of The New RepublicAndrew Sullivan of the Daily BeastScott McConnell and Daniel Larison of The American Conservative; the progressive pro-Israel group J Street; the Center for American Progress blog ThinkProgressStephen Walt of Foreign Policy and Harvard; Steve Clemons of The Atlantic and the New America Foundation; Jim Fallows of The AtlanticEmily Hauser of Open Zion; Marsha B. Cohen and Jim Lobe at LobeblogNicholas Kristof of The New York TimesClyde Prestowitz, formerly US Trade Representative in a Republican administration, in Foreign Policy;Robert Merry at The National Interest; former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer; and former U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller (author of the book in which Hagel’s “Jewish Lobby” quote appears). UpdateAlso, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Update, 12/20: A bunch of former US ambassadors–including five former ambassadors to Israel–have now written a letter saying Hagel has “impeccable” credentials to be secretary of defense: Nicholas Burns, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador to NATO and Greece; Ryan Crocker, former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan; Edward Djerejian, former Ambassador to Israel and Syria; William Harrop, former Ambassador to Israel; Daniel Kurtzer, former Ambassador to Israel and Egypt; Sam Lewis, former Ambassador to Israel; William H. Luers, former Ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia; Thomas R. Pickering, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador to Israel and Russia; Frank G. Wisner, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Ambassador to Egypt and India.

Robert Wright is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God, a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The Real Reason Republicans Hate Hagel

It has more to do with President Obama than the former senator from Nebraska.

By Fred Kaplan, Slate
January 06, 2013

It’s good news that President Obama will nominate Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense, despite the frantic campaign against him that’s been mounted by certain Republicans.

I don’t think that he chose Hagel because of the opposition. It’s generally not Obama’s style to pick a fight for its own sake (cf. Rice, Susan). He’s an issues man, and he faces many fights on other pressing matters. If he thought that someone less controversial could do the job at the Pentagon, he’d have gone with that person in a flash (cf. Kerry, John).
The real question is what kind of job Obama wants his next secretary of defense to do. I have no inside knowledge on this, but judging from some of his actions and remarks on matters of national defense, Hagel seems to be the right choice. And that’s what disturbs the most outspoken Hagel-resisters.

These resisters have four main concerns. They fear that Hagel will cut the military budget. They fear that he’ll roll over if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. They fear that he’s too reluctant to use military force generally. And they fear he doesn’t much like Israel; the extremists on this point claim he’s anti-Semitic.
Let’s look at these points, one by one.

It is true that Hagel once said the defense budget was “bloated” with unnecessary items. Does anyone doubt this is true? Even if sequestration is avoided, the military services are coming in for some cuts, maybe some drastic ones. That always happens after a war, and with good reason; the money spent on those wars is no longer needed. The baseline military budget (excluding the costs of the wars) amounts to $525 billion. Adjusting for inflation, that’s only 7 percent less than what Ronald Reagan spent on defense at the peak of the Cold War—a time when massive Soviet tank armies were poised on the East-West German border and a nuclear arms race was spiraling out of control. It’s hard to argue that we need more money for defense than we spent back then. We still face threats, but not the kinds of threats requiring massive sums on fighter aircraft, tanks, submarines, and nukes.

It’s also true that Hagel isn’t keen on going to war with Iran. Two things here: First, the same is true of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of the American people; second, ultimately, the point is irrelevant. The president makes these sorts of decisions. Obama has said that he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Some Republicans say that they don’t believe him and that by picking Hagel—who would have a loud say in deliberations on the issue—the president is confirming their worst suspicions. First, they have no evidence for this claim. Second, maybe they’re right; but either way, does the Senate’s role of “advise and consent” include an insistence that the secretary of defense favor a policy that they believe the president opposes? Are they sure that Michele Flournoy—the former undersecretary of defense who had also been under consideration for the top job (and who was touted as the superior candidate by such neo-cons as Paul Wolfowitz)—would take a harder line on the subject? And are they really sure what Hagel’s position is? For the past year, he has been co-chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, where he has won plaudits from several veteran intelligence officials for his probity and objectivity. One of these officials told me that, during discussions of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, Hagel put no political spin on the issue.

Again, the Republicans’ real problem on Iran is with Obama—or, rather, with what they think Obama stands for. In the wake of his incontestable re-election, Hagel serves as a stand-in.

On the issue of military force, Hagel is more dovish than many Republicans and perhaps some Democrats. He opposed the Iraq war, but so did Obama (then an Illinois state senator), and, as is clearer now than ever, they were right. More disturbing to some conservatives, he opposed President Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq. The surge and its accompanying shift in strategy did help significantly tamp down the violence in Iraq and allowed, five years later, for a dignified U.S. exit. In that sense, it “worked.” But it only bought time for the Iraqi political factions to settle their differences. (That’s all that Gen. David Petraeus, the strategy’s architect, ever claimed it could do.) And now it’s clear that the factions didn’t want to settle their differences, and so ethnic clashes have persisted, and the issues that divide the factions are no closer to settlement. Therefore, was Hagel so wrong? And, for what it’s worth, Obama, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time opposed the surge, too. Are Hagel’s critics denouncing any of them? Again, they’re really going after Obama.

But the bugaboo issue—the third rail when it comes to foreign policy—is Israel. As a senator, Hagel once complained to a reporter that “the Jewish lobby” intimidates many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he once intoned that he was a senator from Nebraska, not a senator from Israel. These may have been impolitic remarks, but they weren’t false—either in strict substance or in spirit.

No one could deny that AIPAC has an overpowering influence on many lawmakers. Hagel’s sin, in the eyes of some, was to call it the “Jewish lobby” instead of the “Israel lobby.” If this is a sin, AIPAC and its allies have brought it on themselves. For decades, they have thundered that criticism of Israel is thinly disguised anti-Semitism. Yet they cry “anti-Semitism” again when someone inverts the equation (which is what the phrase in question amounts to: If anti-Israel equals anti-Jewish, then pro-Israel equals pro-Jewish). As for saying that he’s a senator from Nebraska, not Israel: Had he or any other senator said this about any other country (“I’m not a senator from France … England … Canada” or wherever), no one would have batted an eye. To accuse him of anti-Semitism on these grounds is to reveal a staggeringly deep paranoia—or a sensitivity far too acute to be allowed any role in American politics.

An open letter from nine former U.S. ambassadors, five of them ex-ambassadors to Israel, strongly endorses Hagel for secretary of defense and rejects as ludicrous the charge that he’s anti-Semitic (as does the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who’s perceptive on such matters). Again, the complaints about Hagel are proxy-complaints about Obama, who is denounced by these critics as soft on Israel, even though the recently retired Israeli defense minister said that Obama has done more for Israeli security than any U.S. president in recent memory.

Let’s look at the real issues. Hagel is a former two-term Republican senator. He won two Purple Hearts as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam. No one could possibly dispute his devotion to the country, its security, or its armed forces. But he is a pragmatist, and there may be the rub. What Republicans seem to fear most is that by appointing Hagel as secretary of defense, Obama can claim a false bipartisanship in his national-security team. In fact, these critics say Hagel does not reflect the values or positions of the Republican Party; his presence in Cabinet meetings would not constitute real bipartisanship.

If that is true, the real problem is with the present-day Republican Party. It’s often said that today’s GOP wouldn’t nominate Ronald Reagan for president. By the same token, much of its leadership would rail against Robert Gates for secretary of defense.

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