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Ever since Susan Rice’s botched nomination, it seems to be open season on President Obama’s top cabinet picks for a second term. As Russ Baker explained here, the substance-free fight over Ms. Rice revealed much more about her accusers and Washington than it did about her. Similarly, the recent kerfuffle over Chuck Hagel as a pick for Secretary of Defense does much to outline the contours of prevailing “wisdom” among the intellectual classes of DC and New York, and the clashing currents within post-Cold War foreign policy doctrine.

After the Obama administration floated the trial balloon of a Hagel nomination several weeks ago, various neoconservative publications and pundits have waged unremitting attacks on the pick. The campaign began when The Weekly Standard quoted an anonymous Senate aide calling Hagel anti-Semitic, and gained steam when the Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens echoed similar, albeit more diplomatic, sentiments. Bill Kristol’s side-PAC (he is the editor of the Standard), the Emergency Committee for Israel, bought ad time in the greater DC television market criticizing Hagel’s opposition to unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran. The Washington Post editorial board insinuated he was far too dovish for the post, citing his voting record on Iran sanctions and statements about Pentagon bloat.

These criticisms were soon buttressed by several seemingly progressive critiques of the former Senator in a not-so-odd alliance between liberals and neoconservatives against the pick (more on that below). The nomination seemed all but torpedoed until several former friends and staffers of Hagel’s fired reciprocal volleys in support, while the Obama administration observed from the sidelines, until today. Hagel’s allies outside the press read like a who’s-who of establishmentarians, from Bush Sr. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to former Reagan Secretary of Defense (and Carlyle Group chairman) Frank Carlucci.

What should be of particular interest to readers of WhoWhatWhy is not the substance (or lack thereof) behind the accusations, but the evidence they provide of what are and aren’t acceptable ideas in Washington these days.

The Record From Which the Needle was Torn

Mr. Hagel, a two term Republican Senator from Nebraska, seems as cut-from-the-establishment-cloth as any pick of recent memory. A Vietnam combat veteran and the recipient of two Purple Hearts, he is currently the chairman of the Atlantic Council and a professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His voting record while in the Senate is unremarkable, having maintained B-level ratings from the American Conservative Union and National Taxpayers Union, two of the oldest traditionally conservative lobbying organizations in the country.

In a refreshing adherence to claimed ideology, Hagel opposed many of George W. Bush’s grandiose expansions of the federal government, including the No Child Left Behind Act and the (unpaid for) Medicare prescription drug bill. Hardly a member of the libertarian right, however, he voted for the Patriot Act and the Iraq invasion despite becoming an early critic once the occupation went sour.

His voting record aside, Hagel’s candor is what seems to have drawn most of the praise as well as the criticism of his putative nomination.  He openly spurned the gulag at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it labeled America “an empire that pushes people around…[and that doesn’t] live up to [its] commitments to multilateral institutions.”  And he spoke of the need to cut the untouchable Pentagon budget, the imperative of ending the occupation of Afghanistan, the folly of regime change in Libya, and the urgency of diplomacy with Iran.

The quote that begot the WSJ and Weekly Standard’s label of anti-Semite came from an interview with Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller for his 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” about the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Standard’s anonymous informer cherry-picked this quotation of Hagel’s from the book as proof of his belief in “a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy”: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

When contacted by The Daily Beast’s Ali Gharib about the seized-upon quote, the book’s author responded, “seized upon is an understatement. It was hijacked.” As Gharib explains:

In the passage, Miller noted that few members of Congress are willing to publicly criticize AIPAC or Israel, but there are a few exceptions. “One who is willing is Chuck Hagel, the two-term Republican senator from Nebraska,” Miller wrote. “Of all my conversations, the one with Hagel stands apart for its honesty and clarity.” [The line in question] begins with this statement from Miller: “Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.” I asked Miller if he still viewed Hagel as “pro-Israel.” “I don’t think there’s a Senator of note in the Senate who is not pro-Israel,” he responded. “But there is a difference between a special relationship with Israel and an exclusive relationship with Israel. I believe in the former and Chuck Hagel believes the former.”
Despite the reassurances from Miller, more troubling accusations have come to light recently. Reporting in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online publication, on January 3, Adam Kredo quotes the hearsay of Marsha Halteman—director for military and law enforcement programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA)—as further evidence of ingrained prejudice. Describing a 1989 meeting with Hagel while he was president and CEO of the World USO, Halteman recalls a divisive meeting over the USO Haifa Center, in which “he said to me, ‘Let the Jews pay for it’.” Kredo continues:
“He essentially told us that if we wanted to keep the USO [in Haifa] open—and when I say ‘we’, he meant ‘the Jews’—he said the Jews could pay for it,” said Halteman, who recalled being taken aback by the comment.
In addition to the poor taste in word and sentiment, the article charges that Hagel attempted to shut down the otherwise successful USO mission in Haifa during his tenure. The Atlantic contacted the Israeli director of the Haifa USO during the period in question, who denied these claims, saying Hagel’s tenure “was an absolute gift from God.”

WhoWhatWhy contacted Ms. Halteman for further detail and corroboration about the incident. As of yet we have not received a response.

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Click here to read the full, hyperlinked essay at WhoWhatWhy

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