We have to be thankful to Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of our more theatrical solons, for dramatizing the way in which the Israel lobby intimidates members of Congress: by asking Chuck Hagel if he could name a single Senator who was so intimidated he merely underscored how thoroughly each and every one of them is cowed. The whole spectacle of this public interrogation, with its tiresomely repetitive demands for pledges of undying loyalty to Israel, brought home the truth of Hagel’s remark.
Of course Hagel couldn’t say that, but the ugly reality resonated in the immense silence that followed this exchange. Interestingly, Hagel didn’t back down: He said "I don’t know." As to what motivates any particular member of Congress on any specific "dumb thing" they do – well, he couldn’t know, could he? But of course, everybody knows about the Israel lobby: and if its power and vindictiveness were ever in danger of being forgotten, then surely the battle over Hagel’s confirmation has reminded us.
To anyone who lives outside the Washington bubble, there was something profoundly weird about the ritualistic invocations of undying loyalty to Israel, a country mentioned 135 times in the course of the hearing: Afghanistan only merited 27, while al Qaeda got 2 and Mali one. One would have thought Hagel had been nominated for Israeli Defense Minister instead of the top civilian in the Pentagon. As he faced the pro-Israel "inquisitors" – as Sen. Angus King put it – the educational value of this political drama was worth far more than all the books and articles one could possibly read.
Speaking of motivation, Graham’s grandstanding was preaching to the choir: the wingnuts in his party don’t think he’s right-wing enough, and this is his way of compensating for what the Tea Party types consider sellouts on immigration and other issues dear to their hearts.
However, it was John McCain’s confrontation with his now ex-friend, the former Senator from Nebraska, that was most telling, insofar as it tells us what this whole brouhaha really is about: the country’s verdict on the Iraq war, and the lingering power and influence of those who lied us into it.
Enraged by Hagel’s observation that the "surge" prefigured the single most disastrous episode in US foreign policy since the Vietnam war, Mad John’s eyes practically popped out of his head. Hagel, sitting there calmly, replied somewhat bemusedly that we’ll "let history judge" who was right about that one.
McCain’s impotence was palpable as he ranted and railed, his red-faced fury assailing Hagel’s stony defiance. If, as one suspects, history’s judgment of the Iraq war will be as harsh as the American people’s, then McCain and his fellow Iraq war dead-enders will be the ones "on the wrong side of history," as the Arizona Senator had the nerve to intone in his scolding lecture – odd coming from such a spectacularly failed presidential candidate. If indeed history has a side — a dubious proposition, at best — at least we can say McCain is on the wrong side of recent history: the American people wanted out of Iraq, they want out of Afghanistan, and they don’t want us meddling in Syria. Yet the tone deaf McCain actually brought up Syria at the hearing, haranguing Hagel and asking "How many more have to die?"
There was a lot of competition as to which Republican senator gave the craziest performance, but I think the prize has to go with the one who came with exhibits, three of them – two of them clips from an Al Jazeera, which Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) helpfully described as a "foreign network, engaged in propaganda." That this was said by someone whose talking points were written by propagandists for another foreign power – namely, Israel – is the kind of irony a wingnut like Cruz is utterly deaf to.
In any case, Cruz presented a severely edited clip of Hagel’s anodyne answer to a question from an Al Jazeera viewer about "moral leadership," which was of no significance – but, according to the esteemed Senator, it was evidence that Hagel believed Israel had committed "war crimes." Go here to look at the entire answer to the question, and the context – which was US-Russian relations, specifically the prospects for nuclear disarmament – rather than the radically abbreviated version played by Cruz. The Al Jazeera announcer intervened in the midst of the questioner’s long disquisition, asking "what is your question about the subject we are discussing, which is nuclear weapons." The questioner then went on to ask about the "lack of moral leadership," and it is clear from the context that Hagel was saying, yes, we need more moral leadership on the issue of nuclear leadership: he said nothing about Israeli war crimes. And while this may be unfortunate, Cruz’s attempt to twist Hagel’s words is contemptible, to say the least.
Citing the same interview, Cruz took the next question from a viewer out of context, averring that Hagel agreed with a caller who said that the "perception and reality" of the US as the "world’s bully" stood in the way of an agreement between the US and Russia on further dismantling of nuclear arsenals. Yet he said nothing about the US being a bully, let alone the world’s bully, and simply went on to utter a harmless bromide about the need to "reach out" and "engage."
Clearly Hagel walked back some of his past positions, in my view unnecessarily – after all, he wasn’t going to convince Sen. Cruz in any event, and it’s important to get the truth on the record. For example, Hagel backed down when Cruz went after his description of Israel’s last attack on Lebanon as a "slaughter," and tried to spin it as a condemnation of Israel. Yet if you look at the entire speech – as Dave Weigel has – it was no such thing. There’s nothing subtle about Cruz’s cherry-picking: it’s crude, and brazen. Not that he cares. A blustering bullying opportunist, whose physical resemblance to Joe McCarthy is an act of justice on Nature’s part, the Republican Senator from Texas cares only about getting that sound-bite on Fox News. In the second round of questioning, Cruz reprised his McCarthyesque performance by declaring that he had "a list of anti-Israel comments" purportedly made by Hagel.
I have in my hands a list! To the irony-proof Cruz, this was a zinger. To the rest of us it was more proof – if that were needed – of the man’s thuggishness.
This entire process has been enormously helpful to those of us who have been trying to open the eyes of the public to the inordinate influence the Israel lobby exerts on Congress and on US foreign policy. A visitor from Mars might imagine he’d landed in the midst of a show trial conducted by some totalitarian regime, with the prisoner in the dock forced to confess and engage in "self-criticism," as the inquisitors looked sternly askance at his recantation.
The Israel Firsters really went out on a limb, this time, and in the end they’ll wind up having sawed it off. Because Hagel is going to be confirmed in spite of their hysterical hate campaign, and what that means is that their power is broken.
No, the Israel lobby isn’t going away: what’s ended, however, is the myth of their invincibility – not to mention the myth of their nonexistence. Remember, it is supposed to be a hate crime of some kind to even mention the Israel lobby, and up until this point the lobbyists and their shills have stoutly maintained that it is a "conspiracy theory" to believe such a thing exists (and also "anti-Semitic"). Now we have Sen. King, independent from Maine, who got in the last word at the hearing when, asking Hagel if he knew who was behind the ads attacking his nomination. Yes, Senator, wouldn’t we like to know!
Among the many darkly comic moments of the hearing, a real howler was introduced at the beginning when Senator Jim Inhofe inquired as to know why Hagel hadn’t bothered replying to a letter sent to him by the resident wingnuts on the committee, listing every organization he’d ever been affiliated with (save the USO) and demanding to know if any of them were recipients of funding from "foreign nations, foreign sovereign funds, [or] foreign corporations."
This is rich, considering the source. While we don’t know exactly where the money for the wide array of anti-Hagel television spots and full page newspaper ads came from – at least $1 million, according to Jim Lobe – many suspect it was due to Sheldon Adelson’s well known generosity when it comes to "pro-Israel" causes. Adelson – who once said he regrets the uniform he wore when he served in the military was American and not Israeli, and whose wife is a dual Israeli-American citizen.
In their effort to "expose" Hagel, the Lobby and its shrinking band of loyal foot soldiers only succeeded in exposing their own weakness. And that is a big step forward for opponents of the War Party. Because it is the Israel lobby that is, today, the main force agitating for war with Iran, and US military intervention in Syria. The Israel lobby is leading the pushback in response to the prospect of big defense cutbacks – because if the American Empire is now contracting, then Israel can no longer huddle under the eagle’s wing. As we have seen in Hagel’s case, it is these lobbyists on behalf of a foreign power who are most aggressive in "policing" the policy establishment in Washington, determined to block those who fail to toe the party line from getting anywhere near the levers of power.
In the past, they might have pulled it off – as they did with Charles Freeman, whom Cruz tried without success to link to Hagel – but not this time. The country has changed: the dark days of the Bush era, when smear campaigns aimed at anyone who challenged the Lobby’s dominance usually ended in the target’s political destruction, are over. The fury and energy of the anti-Hagel campaign only served to underscore its complete impotence and irrelevance: the country has moved on, even if Bill Kristol hasn’t. If the Iraq war didn’t succeed in totally discrediting Kristol and his fellow neocons, then this hearing – with all the vindictiveness and sheer hate of these people on full display – is their Waterloo.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’m on Twitter quite a bit these days: you can follow me here.
Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).