By Will Banyan (Copyright © 25 February 2013 & 01 March 2013)

Author’s note: On 24 November 2014, Chuck Hagel resigned as Secretary of Defense. The circumstances of his retreat from public office were contentious; Obama’s claims that Hagel had determined that it was “appropriate time for him to complete his service” was greeted with derision by most Beltway observers. Most reporting suggested that Hagel’s apparent decision was driven by his failure to penetrate Obama’s inner circle, his frustration with being micro-managed by Obama and his aides, and for finding himself repeatedly “out of step” with the White House on many issues. The irony of this situation is that by the end of his brief tenure, Hagel had earned the affection of those whom had opposed his confirmation (as detailed below), particularly Israel and pro-Israel forces in the US. Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yalon praised the outgoing Secretary as a “true friend of Israel” and Abraham Foxman, National Director of the US-based Anti-Defamation League likewise lauded Hagel’s “energetic stewardship of America’s commitment to Israel’s security.” It would seem that Hagel had demonstrated fealty to the wrong master…

President Obama’s decision to replace his outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with former Senator Charles (Chuck) Hagel has rapidly proved to be one of his most difficult and controversial Cabinet-level appointments. At least since Obama’s attempt to nominate US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, as the next Secretary of State ended in tears – and the elevation of Senator John Kerry, the Skull and Bonesman Democrat presidential candidate of 2004, into that feted position. Senator Hagel’s primary sin, in the eyes of his Republican interrogators in the Senate, and his detractors amongst the neo-conservative punditocracy, was that this prospective US Defense Secretary was insufficiently pro-Israel.

Ahead of his confirmation hearings in January this year, for example, Hagel was repeatedly accused by neo-con gadfly, William Kristol, writing in the Weekly Standard, of having “anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides” (Dec 24, 2012); “dangerous views on Iran” and an “unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews” (Jan. 4, 2013). Kristol also attacked Hagel for making the apparently “vulgar and disgusting charge” that the US invasion of Iraq was a “war for oil” (Jan. 5, 2013). Heaven forbid! In the same august publication (Jan. 7, 2013), former Bush Administration official Elliott Abrams, a presidentially pardoned felon, casually implied that Hagel was anti-Semitic because of his allegedly “hostile” attitude towards the Jewish community of Nebraska in 1989 over the closing of a USO facility in Israel.

Demonstrated fealty to Israel’s security interests now seems to be a litmus test for acceptance in the US foreign policy establishment.  And despite his seemingly impeccable Establishment credentials – including his Chairmanship of the Atlantic Council, membership of the boards of directors of Chevron Corporation and Zurich’s Holding Company of America, Co-Chairmanship of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and membership of the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board – Hagel has been found wanting. Notwithstanding receiving glowing endorsements from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous former Secretaries of State, Defense Secretaries and National Security Advisors; as well as former diplomats and retired US generals, Hagel has been accused of holding views on Israel and Iran that were “out of the mainstream”, as Senator Inhofe said during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Hagel’s nomination on 31 January this year.

Indeed, according to the commissars of pro-Israel sentiment in the US, even the newly re-elected President Obama has called into question his own hard won pro-Israel credentials by nominating Hagel. Back in December last year the aforementioned Kristol, a co-founder of the Project for a New American Century and of the Emergency Committee for Israel, posed exactly that challenge to Obama and Democratic congressmen:

Whether Hagel is nominated is above all a test for President Obama. Is he serious about having Israel’s back? Is he serious about preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons?

It’s a test as well for pro-Israel, anti-nuclear-Iran Democrats. Will they go along with a major policy role for a man they know shouldn’t be in one?

According to Kristol’s strategic calculus, being sufficiently apprised of America’s security interests is a peripheral matter for a prospective US Defense Secretary. It’s where you stand on Israel that really counts.

The Wrong Loyalty

On the fringes of right-wing pro-Israel punditry in the US, the charge has been made that Hagel is guilty, not only of anti-Semitism, but of associating with the wrong sort of Jewish person – specifically billionaire currency speculator and professional anti-Zionist George Soros. In a conscious resort to the type of methods typically attributed to that most maligned of public commentators, the conspiracy theorist, World Net Daily scribes Taylor Rose and Aaron Klein have separately noted that Hagel has served on the board of the Ploughshares Fund, a “George Soros-funded group that advocates a nuclear free world” (Klein), which has “given more than $2 million in grants to organizations that support lifting sanctions on Iran and weakening the Israeli-American alliance”, according to a source quoted by Rose.

Klein also revealed that the sinister Ploughshares Fund is in fact:

financed by a small number of foundations, including Soros’ Open Society Institute, the Buffett Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation.

And that:

A primary Ploughshares donor is the Tides Foundation, a money tunnel in which leftist donors provide funds to finance other radical groups. Tides is itself funded by Soros.

In a subsequent article Klein further revealed that “Hagel’s Ploughshares Fund is a major financial contributor to something called the Connect U.S. Fund, or CUSF.” The CUSF, according to Klein’s breathless account:

promotes global governance and states on its website its mission is to influence “policy through integrative collaborative grant making on human rights, non-proliferation, climate change and development, and effective foreign assistance.”

And through Breitbart (Feb. 7, 2013) the risible claim was made by reporter Ben Shapiro that Hagel had not turned over to the Senate requested documents on his sources of foreign funding because “one of the names listed is a group purportedly called ‘Friends of Hamas.’” This patently flimsy allegation was picked up by other pro-Israel pundits, despite the non-existence of such an organization called “Friends of Hamas” or of any evidence that Hagel had received funds from any pro-Hamas groups. (A reporter for the New York Daily News (Feb. 19, 2013), Dan Friedman, subsequently confessed that a hypothetical question from him to a Senate source about any links between Hagel and pro-Hamas sources inadvertently started the rumour; a charge Breitbart reporter Shapiro has unconvincingly denied).

The Daily Caller has also contributed to the dirt campaign (Feb. 20, 2013), publicizing spurious allegations that Hagel’s staffers “met repeatedly with a controversial pro-Iran lobby group, and some met with the organization’s president.”  On January 31, nationally syndicated radio host Mark Levin also launched a broadside that painted Hagel as the logical choice of secretly pro-Islamic anti-Israeli president:

What kind of commander-in-chief would nominate somebody like Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense? I’ll tell you what kind of commander-in-chief, the kind of commander-in-chief that arms the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamonazi regime in Cairo while he’s hallowing out the greatest military force on the face of the earth under his direct command, the United States military. That’s what kind of commander-in-chief [he is].

Chuck Hagel, who’s a sympathizer with the most radical elements in the Middle East, and an Israel hater. So why would a president nominate somebody like Chuck Hagel? Because the president is Chuck Hagel. He’s a sympathizer with the most radical elements in the Middle East and he’s an Israel hater. That’s why he nominated Hagel.

No Room For Dissent

The trials and travails currently being inflicted on Hagel, ranging from the intense scrutiny on his previous positions on various foreign policy issues through to the close inspection of his personal connections and affiliations to detect potential disloyalty, are not entirely unprecedented, (though the use of the filibuster by Senate Republicans to try and block a confirmation vote has set a new standard). Perhaps of greater note is that Hagel’s suitability is clearly being tested against a new post-9/11 foreign policy consensus that appears to rank Israel’s security interests ahead of those of the US; an outcome which suggests the neo-conservatives are still dominating US foreign policy debates, despite their otherwise limited presence in the White House and the damage to credibility wrought by moral and strategic failure of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This new post 9/11 consensus effectively replaces the Cold War consensus and the poorly realised post-Cold War multilateralist consensus. The Establishment’s Cold War consensus, as described by journalist Godfrey Hodgson (Foreign Policy, Spring 1973), was defined by opposition to isolationism, a willingness to use force, a commitment to anti-Communism, and, above all, the “aspiration…to the moral and political leadership of the world.” That consensus had ruptured in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War. The 1970s and 1980s were a period of tumult for the US foreign policy elite as different factions sought to impose their different visions of the US global role. The end of the Cold War and the First Gulf War seemed to herald what George Bush Sr proposed would be a “new world order”, based on international law and respect for global institutions. Yet this post-Cold War multilateralist consensus was weak: Bush Sr’s commitment was purely rhetorical, while his successor Bill Clinton wavered in the face of the growing neo-conservative movement. 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror effectively killed it

In its place, as a number of commentators have observed, is a new consensus on the US role in the world, one that reflects the enduring influence of the neo-conservatives following their capture of the foreign policy apparatus of the Bush Jr Administration in the wake of 9/11. This new consensus, while it may not completely repudiate some of the enduring truisms of US foreign policy (recently summarised by Stephen Walt, as “Some Inconvenient Truths”), it includes a number of specific elements that seek to validate the War on Terror and its expansion into other theatres as others close, as well as some general themes about the US global role and the US-Israel security relationship.

These new truisms, in no particular order, are as follows:

  • The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was necessary to protect US security interests.
  • The “enhanced interrogation” (torture) of captured Al Qaeda members was both justified and effective in securing information.
  • In the Middle East, the security interests of Israel and the United States are indivisible.
  • Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapons capability, but Israel’s semi-secret regional nuclear monopoly must remain unchallenged.
  • Through US support, Israel must retain its military superiority in the region.
  • The use of drones against real and suspected terrorists in other countries is necessary to protect US security interests.
  • The United States is not in decline and must remain the global superpower.
  • China is an emerging strategic threat to US pre-eminence that must be deterred and contained.
  • US sovereignty overrides that of other countries and the requirements of international law.
  • World government and global governance would represent intolerable limitations on the exercise of US sovereign power.

It might seem like a paradox, given the assumptions behind the word “consensus”, but for the current post-9/11 foreign policy accord to hold it appears that some vigorous enforcement continues to be necessary. In practice this requires deviant points of view to be excised and the holders of contrary opinions be pushed to the margins, dismissed and stigmatised as cranks or crazies; they are not regarded as “serious” people. Establishment waverers, such as Hagel, who despite their excellent credentials, who either stray, or merely appear to, into the strictly forbidden territory of questioning, not the strategic sense but the morality of the US invasion of Iraq, Vietnam and countless other countries, or acknowledging the remarkable influence of certain ethnic lobbies over the White House and Congress, or question the bases of the US-Israel security relationship, must be brought to back into line with the views of the “serious” people or expelled from the circles of power.

As noted before, bruising confirmation battles are not unprecedented and have a long history. Sometimes the motives for obstructing the president’s nominee are relentlessly partisan; other times the president is being reminded not to stray from the bipartisan consensus. When that consensus is fragile, rougher tactics are required to prevent alternate opinions from being inserted into the policy frame. The neo-conservatives had a nasty reminder of this in 2005, when the remnants of the Cold War Establishment and supporters of the post-Cold War multilateralist approach, aided by insider John C. Whitehead, mounted both a public and a behind-the-scenes campaign to block the confirmation of John Bolton as President George W. Bush’s choice as US Ambassador to the United Nations. They largely succeeded with Bush left with no option but to place Bolton, an acerbic critic of the UN and opponent of all forms of global governance, into the post through a short duration recess appointment.

The neo-conservatives and the pro-Israel lobby soon had their revenge; in early 2009 they attacked the appointment of Ambassador Charles (Chas) Freeman as Chair of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman was pilloried for his alleged anti-Israel bias in a campaign that was largely kicked off (according to the New York Times) by Steve J. Rosen, then at the Middle East Forum, and a former senior officer with the leading pro-Israel lobbying organisation the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It was Rosen, drawing on his AIPAC experience, who first characterised Freeman as “strident critic of Israel” and “a textbook case of the old-line Arabism” (Feb. 19, 2009). The anti-Freeman campaign followed a clear line with the hapless Freeman denigrated by various defenders of the US-Israel relationship as: “a longtime shill for the Saudis and virulent hater of Israel” (Tobin); a “Saudi/Chinese Government Lobbyist” (Dunetz); “a pawn of the Saudi Lobby” (Weekly Standard); and an “anti-Israeli former diplomat and pro-Arab lobbyist” (Zionist Organisation of America). Realising his position had become untenable, Freeman resigned.

Now Hagel presents a new target for the collective ire of the neo-conservatives and other pro-Israel elements in the US power elite. Despite the seemingly uniform Establishment support for his appointment and the silence on his appointment from the leading Israel Lobby group, AIPAC, Hagel’s pro-Israel credentials have been placed under unrelenting attack. In short, he has been challenged to prove that he really is “serious” or “mainstream” in his views on Israel and Iran, among other issues. And Hagel has sought to prove that he will conform.

And He Loved Big Brother

Under intense and aggressive questioning during his confirmation hearing, much to his supporters’ dismay, Hagel appeared to back away from many of previous positions on Iraq, Iran, Israel and his controversial comments on the “Jewish lobby”, and on the exercise of US power globally. Indeed, he went out of his way to reassure the Senators of his seriousness on all these issues, declaring in his opening statement on 31 January that, in the first instance that US global military dominance was inviolable:

My overall world view has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world, that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together, and take advantage of opportunities together; that we must use all our tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests. I believe, and I always have believed, that America must engage in the world, not retreat from the world, but engage from the world. My record is consistent on these points (Confirmation Hearing, p.14; emphasis added).

In the same vein, Hagel emphasised that the US would continue to retain the right to act unilaterally:

America’s continued leadership and strength at home and abroad will be critically important for our country and the world. While we will not hesitate to act unilaterally when necessary, it is essential that we work closely with our allies and partners to enhance America’s influence and security, as well as global security (Confirmation Hearing, p.15; emphasis added).

He also sought to placate those who questioned his commitment to Israel’s security:

I will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region, and will continue to support systems like Iron Dome, which is today saving Israeli lives from terrorist rocket attacks. That support I have always made clear and been on the record for (Confirmation Hearing, p.16; emphasis added).

Ahead of the hearings Hagel had met privately with New York Democrat Senator Charles (another ‘Chuck’) Schumer on January 14, 2013, for the purpose of clarifying his views on Israel and Iran. In a statement Schumer released over a month after the meeting, he admitted to having had “genuine concerns” over “certain aspects” of Hagel’s “record on Israel and Iran.” Schumer happily reported that his 90 minute meeting with Hagel had resulted in the nominee debasing himself in two ways. First, Hagel had toed the line on Iran, Hamas and providing military support to Israel:

On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country. But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do “whatever it takes” to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force

On Hezbollah, Senator Hagel stressed that—notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past—he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization.

On Hamas… Senator Hagel assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Senator Hagel volunteered that he has always supported Israel’s right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas. He understood the predicament Israel is in when terrorist groups hide rocket launchers among civilian populations and stage attacks from there. He supported Israel’s right to defend herself even in those difficult circumstances.

In keeping with our promises to help equip Israel, Senator Hagel pledged to work towards the on-time delivery of the F-35 joint strike fighters to Israel, continue the cooperation between Israel and the U.S. on Iron Dome, and recommend to the President that we refuse to join in any NATO exercises if Turkey should continue to insist on excluding Israel from them.  Senator Hagel believes Israel must maintain its Qualitative Military Edge.

Second, according to Schumer, Hagel “almost had tears in his eyes when he understood” that his negative reference to the “Jewish Lobby” amounted to an intolerable “double standard” that was hurtful for all Jewish people. Satisfied as to Hagel’s commitment to Israel’s security requirements, Schumer was not only willing to support Hagel’s confirmation, but he made a remarkable suggestion that Hagel’s real troubles with the neo-cons arose solely because of his “apostasy on Iraq.” However, having made public Hagel’s near-tearful self-abasement, (apparently at a breakfast in lower Manhattan hosted by the Association for a Better New York and the Downtown Alliance), Schumer perhaps felt obligated to put in some sort of good word whilst making a lame attempt to differentiate his concerns from his erstwhile opponents the equally pro-Israel neo-cons…

Yet in spite of the Republican hysterics, it is still likely that Hagel will be confirmed. Should this occur we can anticipate that much like Obama, who faced a concerted campaign to paint him as a dangerous anti-Israeli radical during the 2008 presidential campaign, that Hagel will learn to the toe the line and moderate his apparently “extreme” views on America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Such an outcome does not suggest an Establishment “consensus” (i.e. mutual agreement”) but conformity based on acquiescence.

* * * * *

UPDATE (1 March 2013): On 26 February 2013, a day after this piece was first posted online; former Senator Chuck Hagel was finally confirmed as the US Secretary of Defense. The Senate vote was 58-41 in his favour, though it was highly partisan with just four Republican Senators joining the Democrat and independent Senators in support of Hagel. On 28 February Hagel was formally sworn in as the 24th US Secretary for Defense.

Naturally there was some consternation among his opponents, given that their efforts had ultimately failed to prevent his confirmation. An editorial in the intermittently published online newspaper, The New York Sun (Feb. 27, 2013), for example, lamented that Hagel’s confirmation largely occurred because of the curious reluctance of AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations to publicly oppose him:

By confirming Charles Hagel as secretary of war, Senator Schumer and the Democratic leadership send a pointed message to the Jewish community in America. It is that if the Jewish defense agencies are not going to stick up publicly for Israel, it is hard to expect others to do so. There is no sugar-coating the point. The Senate has just confirmed the most truculent cabinet officer in respect of Israel in more than a generation because important institutions and leaders shrank from making an issue of it (emphasis added)

The Sun quoted the opinion of Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organisation of America (which had publicly opposed Hagel), that had AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee taken a formal position against Hagel, had they “come out and lobbied against Hagel, he would have been stopped.”

But not all were so maudlin. William Kristol, in his role as Chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel issued a statement (Feb. 26, 2013) that, in addition to congratulating ECI and their various allies for their efforts, suggested they had taken some sting out of Hagel’s lacklustre commitment to Israel’s security by forcing him to publicly repudiate his previous stance:

We take some comfort in Mr. Hagel’s confirmation conversions on the issues of Israel and Iran, and do believe that, as a result of this battle, Mr. Hagel will be less free to pursue dangerous policies at the Defense Department and less inclined to advocate them within the administration [emphasis added]

Even some of Hagel’s supporters have stopped short of portraying confirmation as a definitive victory over the Israel Lobby. Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), for example, argues on his blog (Feb. 27, 2013) that:

[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. Chuck Hagel was about as bulletproof a candidate as one could ask for (decorated war hero, defense and intelligence expert, successful businessman, respected ex-senator, etc.) and that didn’t stop these zealots from unloading the SIOP against him. The fact that they ultimately failed is important, but so is the fact that they could even make an issue of it. The lobby failed to stop Ronald Reagan from selling AWACs to Saudi Arabia in 1981, but they made him work really, really hard to get the deal through and he never took them on again.

One should also remember that Obama has basically been caving in to the lobby ever since 2009, which tells you something about its clout. It’s true that he doesn’t have to run for reelection again. But most of those Congressmen do, and they aren’t going to back him up if he tries to play hardball with Netanyahu. The annual aid package to Israel will be approved like clockwork, which means Obama won’t have many levers to use if he needs to push both sides toward a peace deal [emphasis added].

In short, despite its apparent defeat, the Israel Lobby, without its main organisations even acting, but ably represented by certain media figures and aided by sympathetic Senators, almost derailed Hagel’s confirmation. Furthermore they did succeed in forcing Hagel to repudiate many of his most controversial positions on the US-Israel security relationship, US policy towards Hezbollah and Iran’s nuclear program. Hagel was not stopped but he was stymied; and ultimately he was compelled to conform as the price of office.

This does not mean, as some anti-Semitic commentators might suppose, that Jewish elements are involved in some nefarious plot to control the US Establishment. It does mean that a shift has occurred; after decades of being excluded from the seats of power, of being denied membership in elite clubs and excluded from or subjected to demeaning quotas as a price for entry into Ivy League universities, America’s Jewish elite has now been admitted to the US power-elite. And like all the groups that comprise the US power-elite, which have access to and in some cases considerable influence over the policy-making segments of the US Government, they have used that opportunity to pursue their presumed interests. For pro-Israel elements that usually means no more than ensuring continuing unequivocal US political, diplomatic, economic and military support for Israel.

They are far from the only lobby at work in the US policy sphere – many other areas of US public policy from pharmaceuticals, to health insurance through to food safety regulations, are distorted by the efforts of corporate and plutocratic lobbies – but the Israel Lobby is certainly one of the most vocal and effective. This is symptomatic of a broader problem in the US, if not globally, where corporate lobbying shapes government policy. And in such a world the public interest becomes a largely derided afterthought while the “Serious” people reign…