The conservative right in America has engaged in a campaign to stall (and hopefully discredit) the newly-appointed Secretary of Defense Charles (Chuck) Timothy Hagel by painting him as a virulent anti-Jewish and anti-American activist. In reality, however, he is sophisticated and tempered, and possesses a record that shows where United States foreign policy needs to go in Obama’s second term and beyond.
To give a brief overview: Hagel was born in 1946, served in Vietnam, and has been engaged in both business and politics since the 1970s. His political career is marked by his work in Veterans Affairs and his time as a Republican senator for Nebraska between 1996-2009. After the Senate, he took up a position as a professor at Georgetown University in parallel with various advisory board appointments, until his current confirmation as secretary of defense.
The attacks against him concern Israel, and they come from his opponents within the Israeli lobby in the United States. Hagel has remarked, “I’m not an Israeli senator, I am a United States senator” and “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people in Washington.” Hagel also authored a book with Peter Kempinsky, America: Our Next Chapter: Tough Questions, Straight Answers, in which he criticized U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush, the centerpiece of which was the war in Iraq. (This book, in turn, provides insight into Hagel’s voting history, demonstrating his suitability as secretary of defense.)
Chuck Hagel supported the war in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but he was not exceptional in this regard, as the United Nations legitimized the operation and an overwhelming number of countries supported NATO in the intervention. He opposed the war in Iraq in 2002, and has been consistent on this stance over the course of that conflict and its aftermath, likening it to the war in Vietnam in terms of its failure to produce a positive net effect. Hagel has also been an opponent to some sanctions on Iran, which is another of the key points of opposition towards him.
Perhaps the best summary of Hagel’s views on the Middle East is a speech he gave in 2007 on U.S.-Iranian relations, which was as relevant then as it is now. Iran is a nuanced, rational country whose interests tend to align with America’s. Washington loses regionally and internationally from a self-imposed isolation by choosing to sanction Iran, which is very irrational.
Hagel’s worldview is sophisticated, well-integrated, and nuanced. He brings a badly needed shift in Washington’s foreign policy approach. He is also a likable figure to moderates from both sides of the aisle, and this will be a key coalition-building measure as America heads in critical waters over the debt, deficit and how domestic issues are going to balance out against global commitments.
In my view, Israel is only one of America’s foreign policy issues, and it is not central enough to command the attention it does over Hagel’s appointment. In lieu of a rising China, figuring out how to overhaul the basic philosophy of the approach to the Middle East, Europe’s debt problems and their impact on the U.S. , as well as what the relationship with Russia is going to look like this term, Israel is by far in the lower half of the list in importance. These much bigger problems require the attention of a man with Hagel’s perceived character.
Hagel is correct that he looks after the U.S. interest first. That is his job. Similarly, Israel must look at itself and its choices first, in order to understand its growing isolationism. The attacks against Hagel have no basis in fact or rationality.
To describe Hagel's stance in his own words: "Our relationship with Israel is special and historic. But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.”