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Feb 28 2013

What the Hagel confirmation may signify

The nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense should have been a fairly routine affair. After all, he had actually served in the military (and as an infantryman on the front lines and not an officer), he had been a US senator and a Republican one to boot. He was a typical run-of-the-mill politician.

But the extreme bitterness of the fight revealed the extent to which some members of the senate and the media view anything other than unswerving devotion to the interests of Israel to be a requirement for such an office. The commonly held view that Hagel was leery about going to war with Iran went against the Israeli government’s push to have the US take the lead in attacking that country. The grandstanding by people like Lindsey Graham (who seems to have become the clear leader in unctuousness now that Joe Lieberman has left the senate) was a wonder to behold.

Stephen R. Walt comments on what Hagel’s eventual successful confirmation tells us about the power of the Israel lobby and its tactics.

I suspect a lot of people would like to believe Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense shows that Obama has broken the back of the Israel lobby and will now move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for us, better for Israel, better for the Palestinians, and maybe even better for the entire region.

Don’t count on it.

[I]t would be a huge mistake to conclude that the lobby’s clout has been broken and that Obama will now be free to chart a new course. For starters, the behavior of several senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee shows that they are still mightily beholden to groups like AIPAC and extremist Christian Zionists, not to mention some unrepentant neoconservatives.

[T]he bottom line is that no powerful interest group disappears after a single defeat. Even when a lobby doesn’t get its way, it can gain a partial victory by making the winning side pay a price, and by reminding everyone that it can still make trouble. And that was the lobby’s real strategy here. They probably knew that Hagel was likely to be confirmed, for the simple reason that he was a well-qualifed candidate whose patriotism was beyond question. Their aim instead was to deter future administration from nominating people who weren’t lobby-certified, and to discourage ambitious young foreign policy professionals from doing or saying anything that might put the lobby’s crosshairs on them. [My italics-MS]

In short, so long as opportunistic rabble-rousers like Ted Cruz believe that pandering to the lobby is the smart political play, Capitol Hill will remain supine, the executive branch will be constrained, and U.S. Middle East policy will be about as successful as its been for the last couple of decades.

I think the Hagel confirmation does indicate a weakening of the Israel lobby’s power somewhat. More and more people are questioning the idea that Israel’s interests and those of the US are equivalent, and the smear of anti-Semitism has been used so gratuitously and promiscuously that it has lost the power it used to have in deterring any criticism of the government of Israel’s actions

But Walt is right that we should not overestimate the significance of the Hagel confirmation. And there is one thing that Obama’s fans could learn from groups like the Israel lobby and the NRA lobby and that is that they never let up the pressure on even those who support them.

Supporters of Obama tend to not criticize strongly those actions they disagree with (such as his appalling actions on civil liberties and war on terror) for fear of harming him. Even if you think you are going to lose in the end, you should stand up for what you think is right so that the administration knows that there will be a price to pay for going against the will of its supporters.

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