Hagel for the Defense
In case you haven’t heard, President Barack Obama is considering appointing Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska and a Purple Heart winner, as the next secretary of defense — and this has triggered a mini firefight among Hagel critics and supporters.
I am a Hagel supporter. I think he would make a fine secretary of defense — precisely because some of his views are not “mainstream.” I find the opposition to him falling into two baskets: the disgusting and the philosophical. It is vital to look at both to appreciate why Hagel would be a good fit for Defense at this time.
The disgusting is the fact that because Hagel once described the Israel lobby as the “Jewish lobby” (it also contains some Christians). And because he has rather bluntly stated that his job as a U.S. senator was not to take orders from the Israel lobby but to advance U.S. interests, he is smeared as an Israel-hater at best and an anti-Semite at worst.
If ever Israel needed a U.S. defense secretary who was committed to Israel’s survival, as Hagel has repeatedly stated — but who was convinced that ensuring that survival didn’t mean having America go along with Israel’s lunatic, self-destructive drift into settling the West Bank and obviating a two-state solution — it is now.
I am certain that the vast majority of U.S. senators and policymakers quietly believe exactly what Hagel believes on Israel — that it is surrounded by more implacable enemies than ever and needs and deserves America’s backing. But, at the same time, this Israeli government is so spoiled and has shifted so far to the right that it makes no effort to take U.S. interests into account by slowing its self-isolating settlement adventure.
And it’s going to get worse. Israel’s friends need to understand that the center-left in Israel is dying. The Israeli election in January will bring to power Israeli rightists who never spoke at your local Israel Bonds dinner. These are people who want to annex the West Bank. Bibi Netanyahu is a dove in this crowd.
The only thing standing between Israel and national suicide any more is America and its willingness to tell Israel the truth. But most U.S. senators, policymakers and Jews prefer to stick their heads in the sand, because confronting Israel is so unpleasant and politically dangerous. Hagel at least cares enough about Israel to be an exception.
No one captured the despair in Israel better than Bradley Burston, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, who wrote the other day: “This year, for Hanukkah, I want one person running this country, this Israel, to show me one scrap of light. One move — any move — for freedom, for all the peoples who live here. One step — no matter how slight — in the direction of a better future. What makes this Hanukkah different from all others? It’s the dark. It’s the sense that this country — beset by enemies, beset by itself — has locked down every single door against the future, and sealed shut every last window against hope. ... This country has begun to feel like a lamp whose body is cracked and whose light seems all but spent. On these long nights, we can make out little but an occupation growing ever more permanent, and a democracy growing ever more temporary.”
So, yes, put me in the camp of those who think that a few more bluntly outspoken friends of Israel in the U.S. Cabinet would be a good thing.
The legitimate philosophical criticism of Hagel concerns his stated preferences for finding a negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear program, his willingness to engage Hamas to see if it can be moved from its extremism, his belief that the Pentagon budget must be cut, and his aversion to going to war again in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, because he has been to war and knows how much can go wrong.
Whether you agree with these views or not, it would be nothing but healthy to have them included in the president’s national security debates.
For instance, it’s impossible for me to see how America can secure its interests in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Lebanon without ending the U.S.-Iran Cold War in the Middle East. I’m skeptical that it’s possible. I think the Iranian regime needs hostility with America to justify its hold on power. But with sanctions really biting Iran, I’d like to test and test again whether a diplomatic deal is possible before any military strike.
I think Hamas is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and has been a disaster for the Palestinians. But it is a deeply rooted organization. It controls Gaza. It is not going away. I don’t think America or Israel have anything to lose by engaging Hamas to see if a different future is possible. I think the world needs a strong America to maintain global stability. But the “fiscal cliff” tells you that our defense budget is coming down and we need to cut with a smart strategic plan. I think it would be useful to have a defense secretary who starts with that view and does not have to be bludgeoned into it.
So, yes, Hagel is out of the mainstream. That is exactly why his voice would be valuable right now. Obama will still make all the final calls, but let him do so after having heard all the alternatives.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.