Between the Lines: Why Hagel?

President Obama’s decision to nominate Charles Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, as his candidate for Secretary of Defense is at best insensitive. At worst, it is a huge miscalculation.

Since the president first made public his decision to nominate Hagel, the tone of discussions has been very ugly. Few have been able to remain dispassionate when discussing Hagel’s merits or drawbacks as Secretary of Defense.

That said, Hagel will almost certainly be confirmed by the Senate—but only after a fight. If Hagel is not confirmed, I believe it will be his own doing.

Hagel has shown the public on too many occasions to count that he is a man who speaks his mind, that he operates on a short fuse. Confirmation proceedings can be grueling and it is entirely possible that Hagel will come unglued during the subcommittee hearings.

Senators will rehash faux pas after faux pas. They will have him try to shed light on his most astounding and controversial statements and actions. They will ask him to explain why he said what he said. And they will goad the former senator.

One of the many issues this chapter in modern U.S. history has reopened is Jewish loyalty—more specifically, Jewish dual loyalty in the United States. The fact that Hagel stridently retorted to a question by saying that he was a U.S. senator, not an Israeli senator, has touched a chord with Jews and non-Jews. Everyone knew that Hagel was stating the obvious; the question was, why did he feel the need to state the obvious. Was the then-senator saying that Jews in America are more concerned about their loyalty to Israel than they are to their loyalty to the United States, or was he simply saying that his priority is the United States, not Israel?

The man who may soon be Secretary of Defense has asked if Americans should be intimidated by the “Jewish lobby.” The former senator from Nebraska knows better than that. There is no Jewish lobby in Washington; there is a pro-Israel lobby. And that lobby, like all the others, is not there to intimidate Americans. Hagel knows that. He knows that the vast majority of those involved with the pro-Israel lobby are not even Jews.

But Hagel has his own agenda. And now Israel has been thrust into one of the most uncomfortable positions a country can be in vis a vis the United States. Israelis and especially their leaders cringe when the issue moves to the power of the American Jewish community and the power of the Israeli lobby. Hagel offends. Hagel enjoys offending. Jews, homosexuals—he likes to push the envelope.

Those who are against Hagel are shouting “anti-Semitism.” Those who are against those who are against Hagel, the critics of the critics, are reacting in ways that are dangerously similar to anti-Semitic canards. Without meaning to, pro-Hagel Israeli well-wishers have started sounding like anti-Semites, and anti-Hagel Jews are sounding like people who see anti-Semites lurking behind every bush.

The U.S. Constitution in Article II, Clause 2 charges the Senate to advise the president in selecting advisers. Well, Hagel is in for a very tough ride in the subcommittee. And in order for Hagel’s nomination to pass the Senate, Hagel and the White House must convince at least 10 pro-Israel Democratic senators. The senators must be convinced that Hagel is not a threat to the special relationship with Israel.

No one except for President Barack Obama is championing the Hagel nomination. There are those who are against the appointment and there are those who are against those who are against the appointment.

I don’t think Charles Hagel is an inappropriate choice for Secretary of Defense because of his stance on Israel. I don’t think Hagel is appropriate because he shoots from the hip; he enjoys controversy. And I don’t think that those are qualities the United States needs or wants in a Secretary of Defense.•


Author: Micah Halpern

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