WASHINGTON: Does President Barack Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. secretary of defense signal a shift in U.S. policies on Israel and Iran?
The question merits asking as detractors of the former senator push on with a furious campaign to portray him as hostile to the Jewish state and dovish on Iran.
The answer is no, to hear sober analysts tell it. Despite the sound and fury of the anti-Hagel campaign, complete with charges of anti-Semitism, the relationship between the United States and Israel will remain extra special and the Obama administration will continue to seek a negotiated end to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program rather than start yet another Middle East war.
“Obama’s ... second term will be like his first, only more so,” predicted Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst of Stratfor, a U.S.-based private intelligence company. In an analysis of foreign policy since Obama won his first term in 2008, Kaplan wrote that “it is a foreign policy that operates much like a money market fund: offering little risk, little reward.”
The editors of intelnews.org, a blog for the intelligence community, came to a similar conclusion: “Even if we were to accept that Hagel is somehow ‘anti-Israel,’ anyone who thinks that nearly seven decades of policies on Israel are about to change because Hagel is suspicious of the Israeli lobby in the U.S., grossly misunderstands the institutional character of American foreign policy.
“If Hagel’s nomination is approved by Congress, his views on Israel, or for that matter any other country or group of countries, will form but one element in a multitude of competing interests that help shape American foreign policy.”
Hagel, a moderate Republican of independent mind – a rarity in today’s Republican Party, has been the target of fierce criticism from neoconservatives and right-wing pro-Israel hawks ever since his name was floated on Dec. 12 as Obama’s favorite for the top Pentagon post. The aim of the anti-Hagel campaign was to create so much controversy that the president would pick another candidate. That failed.
Obama formally nominated the 66-year-old ex-senator on Jan. 7, a move that raised the volume in the war of words between Hagel supporters, including prominent figures from America’s foreign policy and military establishments, and detractors, many of them neoconservative hawks who championed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ten years later, they feel the best way to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon is a military attack.
There is doubt that the anti-Hagel camp can muster enough support in the Democrat-controlled Senate to block his confirmation. While he is likely to face tough questioning in his forthcoming confirmation hearing (no date is fixed yet), he can take comfort in history – since World War II, only two presidential picks for cabinet posts have been voted down.
After his nomination, Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star in his home state of Nebraska that “the distortions of my record have been astounding ... there is not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one [Senate] vote that matters that hurt Israel.”
In the eyes of Israel’s most fervent supporters in the United States, not being anti-Israeli is not good enough. They expect American officials to be friends of Israel, a definition that has tended to mean in the past few years unquestioning support for the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In this view, close attachment to Israel should be a requirement for an American cabinet post.
Neutral experts disagreed. “What American Jews or Israelis think about Hagel’s view on Israel shouldn’t be the primary criterion to judge his nomination; whether he is qualified to be defense secretary and to promote American interests is,” Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat who has served as an adviser to six secretaries of state, wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s neither good politics nor wise policy to impose a litmus test of limitless commitment to Israel on U.S. officials.”
Limitless commitment has been the rule rather than the exception for most of the 65 years since Israel was founded. The country now is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid.
When the superpower and its closest ally differ, Israel usually ignores Washington’s wishes. As if to show that he will continue to shrug off American concerns, Netanyahu announced this week that a controversial new settlement project in the West Bank would go ahead. The United States has criticized the plans as an obstacle for the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state.
This is in line with policy Obama spelled out in a 2009 speech in Cairo: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
They did not stop but U.S. aid continued to flow. As Obama put it in a speech to the United Nations: “America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.”
Who runs the Pentagon makes no difference to that.
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.