Chuck Hagel Confirmation Would Improve U.S. Standing in the World


The president of the U.S., Barack Obama, has begun replacing departing cabinet-level officials from his first term.

As expected, he named former Democratic Senator John Kerry to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Although some commentators have expressed reservations about Kerry being too friendly to Pakistan, it is expected that he will sail through the confirmation process in the Senate, of which he has been such a distinguished member.

But Obama's choice of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, to replace the retiring Leon Panetta as his defense secretary, became controversial even before the formal announcement on January 7. The nomination of Hagel for this sensitive, senior position is an unprecedented case of challenging the conventional U.S. position on its primary strategic interests in the Middle East.

Broadly speaking, there are two important issues and one potentially insuperable impediment to his Senate confirmation, around which opposition is coalescing. The first is clear cut - the gay community opposes Senator Hagel's nomination because it believes him to be hostile to them. This has special significance, because the Pentagon's policy regarding recruitment and service of openly gay people in the armed forces remains a work in progress, especially in its implementation. Although Hagel has apologised for a statement made 15 years ago, the gay community has already begun campaigning against his confirmation, including through full-page advertisements in the pricey and influential Washington Post. However, their efforts are unlikely to be decisive because while gay rights have widespread support, they are not deal-breakers. 

The second much more complex and multi-faceted issue constitutes Senator Hagel's well known opposition to wars and willingness to negotiate with opponents. His bruising experience as an enlisted man (equivalent of a Jawan) in America's war against Vietnam has imbued him with a very cautious attitude towards military undertakings. When he considered a presidential run in 2008, his trenchant criticism of Republican President George Bush’s war in Iraq cost him support within his parent party, the Republicans, and he went on to support Obama’s candidature.

But more than his past criticism of the conduct of the Iraq war, Hagel's calls for unconditional negotiations with Iran, including its alleged nuclear weapons program, and openness to talks with Hamas are among the reasons why the Israeli lobbies in the U.S. are organizing to oppose his candidature. While he may be able to explain his willingness to negotiate positions in the confirmation hearings, the remark that could come back to haunt him was made in a 2006 interview with a former Middle East peace negotiator, Aaron David Miller, that “the political reality is that you intimidate, not you - that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [in the Senate]." Later in the same interview, Hagel recounts a conversation with an unnamed person in which he said, "I am a United States Senator. I'm not an Israeli Senator."

Supporters of Israel in the U.S. are not buying the explanation of Hagel admirers that these sentiments come from the premise that ignoring the long suffering of the Palestinian people, and not making peace with them, was not in Israel's own long term interest. But really this contretemps is about something that has long been whispered in policy making circles in Washington, but seldom articulated: whether the U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East always converge, and whether it is possible to question the U.S.’s support of Israel without being castigated as an anti-Semite. That further begs the question of whether or not the U.S. must always fully support Israel regardless of the nature of the Israeli government, and even when it undertakes actions contrary to stated American policy, e.g., continuing to build settlements in the occupied territories, obstructing the peace process, it's currently visceral opposition to Iran, and it's general attitude towards and demands of Arab countries in the region. Unconditional support of Israel is the demand put forth by American Jewish organizations to members of the U.S. Congress, and on which they condition their considerable financial and voting support. 

President Obama has himself continually been accused of being less than fully supportive of Israel despite his frequent assertions that "our bond with Israel will be unbreakable." His relations with Israeli President Netanyahu have been so distant that the latter made known his preference for Governor Mitt Romney in the recent bitterly fought presidential campaign. Despite, or perhaps because of, Netanyahu's many discourtesies to Obama, around 70% of Jewish Americans are believed to have voted Democrat, and yet the pro-Israeli organizations remain powerful and influential. Nevertheless, Israeli commentators and their supporters in the U.S. are striking a more sorrowful, rather than angry, posture while asserting that Hagel will have to conform to the stated policy of President Obama, who claims with justification to have extended unprecedented support to Israel.

On previous occasions, when this Israeli tail that wags the American dog question has come up in the public sphere, the backlash from the supporters of Israel has been like a whiplash. In March 2006, Professors Stephen Walt from the University of Harvard and John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago wrote an essay titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,which suggested that the U.S. was harming its own interests in the Arab world through its blind support of Israel. So powerful was the Israel lobby that a University of the stature of Harvard took the essay down from its website. It had been put on the website in the first place because no publisher would risk publishing it. Eventually, the essay was carried by the London Review of Books and ultimately published in book form in the U.S. by Farrar Strauss and Jerome in 2007.

Another notable occasion was the publication of a book, titled Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, by former President Jimmy Carter in November 2006, which elicited outrage in both Israel and its supporters in the United States. This, despite the fact that it was Jimmy Carter who, during his term as president, had shepherded the Camp David Accords, for which the then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize. More to the point, the Accords made Egypt a pariah in the Arab world because it was the guarantor of Israeli security, to the extent that one of Israel's demands from post-Arab Spring Egypt has been that it respect those accords. All those years later, while writing his book, Carter may have had misgivings about the consequences of Israeli intransigence for the Palestinians. The result was that 14 members of the Carter Center Board of Councilors, all Jewish and probably generous donors, resigned en masse.

Of course, there have been other attempts to craft more win-win strategies for securing Israeli and U.S. interests in the Middle East. In 2008, an organization calling itself J Street was set up, mainly by people of Jewish heritage, to take on the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israeli Political Action Committee, the American Jewish Committee, etc., which are the principle supporters of Israel and influential in the U.S. Congress. It has not acquired a profile anywhere near that of those of the other side, but its continued existence is a sort of victory.

Whether or not Senator Hagel wins confirmation, the world around Israel and, indeed the U.S. itself, has changed. The U.S. is slowly but surely reviewing its former strategic posture. Not only has it departed Iraq without a continuing troop presence – which Israel may also have hoped for to check the growing influence of Shia Iran – it is also departing Afghanistan. While the U.S. is likely to retain a military presence in Afghanistan to continue its war against Al-Qaeda, it will also be there to observe the chaos in Pakistan and to signal its presence to neighbouring Iran.

All this can of course be rolled into the pivot to Asia, where U.S. pre-eminence is being challenged by a resurgent China, initially in East Asia. A decorated war veteran like Chuck Hagel, whose anti-war sentiments as defense secretary cannot be dismissed, may just be the man to oversee a reduction in defense expenditures and manage a more graceful transition to a tighter and more affordable global presence at a time when America's European allies, caught in the Euro zone crisis, are reducing their own defense commitments even more sharply.

There are numerous other developments reshaping the global security environment, some favorable to the U.S., such as its massive deposits of shale oil and gas, which will loosen the stranglehold that Washington and Riyadh have on each other. The Arab Spring has paralysed Israel, but the Arab countries are marching ahead, regrettably to more Islamic, but at least more representative, governments. This may not be a bad time to revive the peace process in a region where nothing has caused more resentment towards the U.S. as its refusal to recognize the suffering of the Palestinians.

What, if anything, would a Hagel defense secretaryship mean for India? Mitigating the militarisation of U.S. foreign policy should certainly calm the world as a whole, including our neighborhood where the presence of the International Security Assistance Force has posed as many dilemmas as reassurances. Among other negatives, it again made the Pakistan military and intelligence agencies central to the U.S., and indeed Western perspectives on the region, with negative consequences for the democratic forces in Pakistan, without which India and Pakistan could perhaps continue their slow dance towards better relations.

India-U.S. relations are likely to continue to develop in the second Obama administration, and the lowering of the pressure on Iran-related issues would remove one of the current impediments to cooperation. Both countries also have similar interests in the Indo-Pacific, which can be furthered without framing them in unduly militaristic terms.

In short, an unconventional nomination for a rapidly changing world should be welcomed cautiously.

This article originally appeared on Gateway House.