What the Hagel nomination says about US political discourse

Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt, someone who belongs to the ‘realist’ school of US foreign policy analysis, writes that the nomination of Chuck Hagel for the post of Defense Secretary does not point to a significant shift in the direction of president Obama’s foreign policy but does represent a widening in the range of such discussions.

The war of words about the nomination of Chuck Hagel will undoubtedly continue for some time, even though his confirmation by the Senate looks overwhelmingly likely at this point.

First, as I noted a week or so ago, I don’t think Hagel’s appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It’s been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama’s national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home.

Second, the real question with the fight over Hagel is whether it is the beginning of a thaw in foreign policy discourse inside the American establishment. Until the Hagel case, ambitious foreign policy wannabes understood that one either had to be completely silent about the “special relationship” with Israel or one had to be an open and vocal supporter. The merest hint that you had independent thoughts on this matter would make you slightly suspect at best or provoke overt accusations that you were an anti-semite, effectively derailing any political ambitions you might have had. The result was an absurdly truncated debate in Washington, where one couldn’t even talk about the role of the Israel lobby without getting smeared. Indeed, one couldn’t even ask if unconditional U.S. support for Israel was in Israel’s best interest, let alone America’s, despite the growing evidence that its settlement policy was threatening its long-term future.

By making such ludicrous charges about Hagel, however, neoconservatives and other extremists made it clear just how nasty, factually ignorant, and narrow-minded they are, and how much they believed that the commitment to Israel ought to trump other foreign policy priorities. And it wasn’t just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. The attacks on Hagel triggered a long-overdue reaction from a remarkably wide circle — including many staunch defenders of Israel — who were clearly disgusted by the smear tactics and aren’t willing to quail before them anymore.

Although he does not claim it, Walt and his University of Chicago colleague John J. Mearsheimer deserve a lot of the credit for enabling this wider discussion. Their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy and the article in the London Review of Books that it was based on (see my two-part review that first discusses the impact of the lobby and then the composition of the lobby and how it operates) made the workings of the lobby a subject of much more open discussion.

As they themselves expected, they were promptly smeared as anti-Semites but they deliberately set out to take the bullet for the team (so to speak) and because they weathered the attacks and continued to speak out, they were able to create space for others to voice criticisms. They are an excellent example of the benefits of academic tenure that I wrote about earlier. Walt and Mearsheimer are both tenured full professors at prestigious universities and thus did not have to fear losing their jobs by taking a politically controversial stand. They could not have done what they did if they had been employees of think tanks, where raising money by currying favor within the political and media establishment is of prime importance.

Chuck Hagel is a conservative politician who fits quite comfortably within the US imperial political consensus of thinking that the US has the right to impose its will on the rest of the world, using force if necessary. His ‘problem’ was that he did not see US interests as identical with Israel’s and said so openly. But expect him during the senate confirmation process to express his unswerving support for Israel as the price to be paid for getting approval.


  1. slc1 says

    It’s not surprising that Israel bashers like Prof. Singham and Prof.Walt have fallen for the notion that the opposition of people like Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin to the nomination of Hagel has something to do with his position on US/Israel relations. This is utter balderdash. This is nothing but payback by the neo-cons for Hagel’s opposition to the Iraq invasion by the Bush administration, after initially supporting in in 2002. I would also point out that former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon also told Colin Powell and his deputy Lawrence Wilkerson that the proposed invasion was a bad idea and that removing Iraq from the board would only strengthen the position of Iran. Sharon proved to be a seer in that regard as that’s exactly what has happened.

    As I have pointed out before, the support of Israel bashers like Walt and Roger Cohen in the NY Times does not help his cause and only gives ammunition to the Kristols and the Rubins of the world.

  2. PatrickG says

    It’s also not surprising that an article referencing the American Israel lobby in a critical way would attract overly facile and completely unsupported characterizations like “Israel bashers”.

    Though I do think you have a minor point regarding Hagel and the Iraq war. Sort of unrelated to the main point of the post, though.

  3. slc1 says

    Obviously, Mr. PatrickG missed the point of my comment so let me be more specific. The comments made by folks in the Senate, like Texas Senator Coryn, that they are “concerned” about Hagel’s position on US/Israel relations is total crap. They are far more concerned about his bad mouthing of the Bush Administration relative to its Iraq policy and are using this nomination as payback.

    By the way, the characterization of Prof. Walt as a mere Israel basher is far too generous. The good professor is in the tradition of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh in his characterization of nefarious Jewish plots to undermine US foreign policy. Here is a link to a review of the Walt/Mearsheimer tome by Jeffrey Goldberg, hardly a devoted Likud supporter, who, by the way, endorses the nomination of Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. In addition to being a Jewish conspiracy theorist, hardly distinguishable from one of his admirers, David Duke, Prof. Walt is also a coward as he has refused to debate his Harvard Colleague, Alan Dershowitz.


  4. PatrickG says

    Mmm, I did agree with you regarding the comments from Republican figures.

    My observation was simply that criticism of the pro-Israel lobby in America inevitably leads to conflation of that lobby with Israel itself. Particularly without supporting material. Since you’ve provided some (which I don’t have enough time to digest fully right now), I’ll retract that comment towards you, though I think the phenomenon is pretty apparent in media.

    And thanks for providing the link, it’s interesting reading. On first reading, I do find some contradictions in Goldberg’s accounts, however. Apologies for the large blockquotes, Goldberg wrote a fairly dense piece here.

    First, he’s no fan of AIPAC, as you note.

    I have three reasons for my distaste for AIPAC. The first is a matter of style: AIPAC’s leaders tend toward glibness and certitude, when the Middle East is a dense and ambiguous place. The second is that I dislike single-issue lobbies and single-issue politics–the duties of American citizenship require more than that; and I worry about the distorting impact of money in political campaigns. The third is that AIPAC has leaned rightward in recent years, and today seeks to drum up support for policies that do not seem to me to be in Israel’s best interests. On the issue of aid to Israel, AIPAC reflexively seeks from Congress generous grants that also do not seem to me to be in Israel’s best interests

    And he certainly seems to agree that AIPAC’s influence is outsized:

    “You see this napkin?” he said. “In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.” As I say, arrogant. But there are a hundred or more lobbyists in Washington who could pull off the napkin trick: lobbyists for the gun lobby, and for oil companies and pharmaceutical companies, and for the anti-Castro lobby and the Saudi lobby. And try getting any administration to challenge China’s record on human rights.

    There’s some very interesting material in there about historical anti-Semitism and some claims reported by Goldberg that appear risible in the context of the article. New homework assignment for me, yay.

    However, when one compares the influence of a domestic lobby on behalf of a foreign nation to that of the NRA on gun control (presumably), and the oil industry on exploration/climate change (presumably), it’s rather hard to say that lobby hasn’t enjoyed great success in stifling dissenting views. Which I took to be Mano Singham’s point.

  5. Rodney Nelson says

    Saying that Israel’s and the US’s interests are not identical qualify as “Israel bashing.” Thanks for telling us that.

    There is a difference between disagreeing with Israeli governmental actions and bashing Israel. Otherwise the opposition parties in Israel would all qualify as “Israel bashers.”

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Meanwhile, the nomination of torturemeister “Dr. Drone” John Brennan as director of the Committee to Intervene Anywhere continues to proceed without a peep from either side of the Congressional aisle…

  7. slc1 says

    Walt and Mearsheimer go far beyond saying that the US interest and Israel interest are not always in congruence. As Jeffery Goldberg points out in the link in my comment #2.1, their diatribe is against the entire Jewish community in the US, little different from previous calumnies from such as Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s.

    Just for the record, I have no use for Benjamin Netanyahu, widely characterized as Israel’s Richard Nixon. Former French President Sarkozy’s comment, “I can’t stand him, he’s such a liar,” was right on the money, as was former Israel Prime Minister Sharon’s telling him to his face, “You were born a liar”. Unfortunately, it would appear to be stuck with him for a while, which is why I support the Hagel nomination, which sends Bibi a message. Bibi, being something of a misogynist, ignores tongue lashings from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel but he won’t be able to treat Hagel in a similar manner.

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