American Right Frets About Possible Hagel Nomination

Neoconservatives don’t believe that the former senator supports Israel quite enough.

Republican senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska visits American troops stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, July 22, 2008
Republican senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska visits American troops stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, July 22, 2008 (US Army/Lance Corporal Casey Jones)

Several Republican lawmakers as well as conservative commentators have expressed reservations about President Barack Obama’s possible nomination of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. Incumbent secretary Leon Panetta is expected to retire next year. If nominated, Hagel would be the only Republican in the president’s cabinet.

In an interview with Fox News on Thursday, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that she had “serious concerns” about statements Hagel made “on Israel, some of the statements he has made in the past, as well as his positions on Iran.”

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, also an Armed Services Committee member, predicted that Hagel will “have to answer questions” in a Senate confirmation hearing “about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization.”

Although the White House insists that the president hasn’t decided yet who he will nominate for the post, several right-wing commentators have been all the more adamant in their opposition to the possibility of Hagel succeeding Panetta at the helm of the Pentagon.

The Weekly Standard‘s editor and neoconservative Bill Kristol argued in an opinion article that Hagel is anti-Israel and favors appeasement with Iran because he once said that “a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”

As senator, Hagel voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization even if is suspected of arming and supporting terrorist groups like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hagel also has a record of consistent hostility to Israel over the last decade. He boasted in 2008 that, unlike his peers, he wasn’t intimidated by “the Jewish lobby.” The next year, he signed a letter urging President Obama to open direct negotiations with Hamas.

Hagel did claim that there was a “Jewish lobby” (when “Israel lobby” would have been the more politically correct term) and that it “intimidates a lot of people up here,” as in, in Washington DC. But he didn’t boast that he wasn’t. Rather, he said:

I’m a United States senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president. Not a party. Not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.

If such a statement is read as anti-Israel, little wonder that some lawmakers may be “intimidated” by American conservatives who sympathize with the Jewish state.

Indeed, even Hagel’s expressed support for Israel hasn’t convinced The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens. To the contrary. He wrote on Tuesday, “This is the sort of thing one often hears from people who treat Israel as the Mideast equivalent of a neighborhood drunk who, for his own good, needs to be put in the clink to sober him up.”

Actually, it’s the sort of thing one often hears from politicians around the world who support Israel’s right to exist, consider it a triumph of democracy and capitalism over the backwardness of the countries that surround it, denounce terror and have little concern for the Palestinians except to the extent that it might affect Israel’s security. It’s only among neoconservatives in the United States that Hagel’s statements about Israel, his call for a rather less biased view toward its conflict with the Palestinians and a preference for negotiation over force would disqualify him from a top cabinet position.