Hagel nomination now likely to be all smooth sailing

By Norman Birnbaum Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-20 22:08:01


Illustration: Liu Rui
Illustration: Liu Rui

With endorsements from two Senators who are voices of the Israel lobby (Barbara Boxer of California and Chuck Schumer of New York), former senator Chuck Hagel is now almost certain of accumulating enough votes to be confirmed as secretary of defense.

A certain number of former Republican colleagues and other Republican Senators will vote against him, but it is unlikely that the Republicans will resort to all the available mechanisms for nullifying the candidacy.

In the first instance, the decision by the aforementioned Democratic  senators is a gesture of solidarity with President Barack Obama and a recognition of the enlarged influence he won with his electoral victory.

Decades ago, I was a citizen of Massachusetts and had the occasional privilege of working with the late senator Edward Kennedy.

When my fellow junior teacher at Harvard, Henry Kissinger, was nominated to be secretary of state by former president Richard Nixon, I wrote to Kennedy expressing my reservations. Kennedy replied that he thought a president should have the cabinet members of his choice.

The Republican refusal to accept this principle is in part derived from their inability to accept Obama as the legitimate president: He does not conform to their narrow idea of the nation. It is also a response to the threat they see in Hagel's independent thinking.

Hagel, who was wounded as a soldier in Vietnam but later criticized the futility of that war and found the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq unwise, declared that negotiation with Iran was advisable, and described the military budget as too large. He also refused total alignment of the US with Israel.

Someone as politically autonomous as Hagel threatens the continuity of the militarization of US policy, by demanding that the nation engage in a painfully unusual exercise: thinking. Much of the Republican Party sees in that a dangerously un-American activity.

In speaking with Schumer and others, Hagel emphasized that he strongly supported Israel, that he would not exclude an attack on Iran as a last resort to stop it from developing nuclear weaponry, and that his supposed iconoclasm had been grossly exaggerated.

In this setting, some influential   leaders of the American Jewish community, in return for some vacuous assurances, have chosen not to oppose Hagel.

The Jewish organizations with the most unequivocal allegiances to Israel represent only a minority of American Jews.

A majority of American Jews think of their life in the US as the fixed center of their existence, regard Israel with critical sympathy but refuse to give it the obsessive loyalty of a vocal minority.

That minority, oblivious to the successful integration of Jews in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and religiously plural US, thinks of Jewish history as an unending catastrophe. It interprets Israel's international moral isolation as justification for its treatment of the Palestinians.

In Obama, they have encountered a US president who does not allow their fictions to go unchallenged. With Obama reelected, several of the more important pro-Israel groups showed some caution about following the unconditional Zionists in denouncing Hagel.

It is now very probable that Hagel will be the secretary of defense. His tasks extend well beyond the Middle East and the turbulence of the Muslim world.

He will have to manage large decreases in the budget of the armed services, or, at least, achieve the stoppage of its unsustainable growth. He will have to supervise the transformation of the armed forces in a world which has long since ceased to think of the US as the ultimate defender of international order. 

Hagel experienced war in Asia, but it remains to be seen how he will conceive of relations with China in circumstances vastly different than those prevailing 40 years ago.

 Of course, he will work with the president, with the new secretary of state and new CIA director in fashioning policy toward Iran. There, Israel's reckless demand for military action against Iran has been resisted.

What Hagel will do is impossible to predict. It is possible to say that his nomination has been made in part due to the dwindling influence of the Israel lobby. The president anticipated their objections and, backed by many in the foreign policy and military elite, defeated them. The nomination struggle, then, is less Hagel's triumph than Obama's.

The author is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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