Chuck Hagel: An Unconventional Realist

The knives are out:

“Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.”

That’s what a top Republican Senate aide told the Weekly Standard in response to the news that President Obama is likely to nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as his new Secretary of Defense. Normally, the Israel lobby would try to hide such viciousness, acting behind the scenes to go after their perceived enemies in ways that might repel bystanders: not this time, however.

It’s an indication of their diminished stature and power that they are openly going in for the kill, perhaps hoping they can pull a Bobby Ray Inman. Inman, you’ll recall, took himself out of the running for SecDef during the Clinton administration when Bill Safire, then Likudnik-in-chief among newspaper columnists, went after the respected former admiral and intelligence maven because he had sought to limit our sharing of intelligence with Israel. No sooner had the Inman appointment been announced then it was suddenly discovered he had failed to pay Social Security taxes to a baby sitter, among other “crimes.” Hagel, however, is made of tougher stuff, so it will have to be the President who blinks.

Why the hate directed at Hagel? Bill Kristol, the neocons’ little Lenin, has provided us with a handy list of reasons, all of which involve Hagel’s adamant refusal to take his marching orders from Tel Aviv.

AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby whose local affiliates spend millions bribing members of Congress, routinely circulates letters on this or that issue-of-the-moment involving the Jewish state’s demands on Washington, which our solons are then blackmailed into signing. Most of them do: not Hagel. Asked about this at a New York meeting with a pro-Israel group pushing for a US attack on Iran, the straight-talking Vietnam vet told his interlocutor:

Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind. I’m a U.S. Senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a U.S. Senator. I support Israel… But my first interest is, I take an oath to the constitution of the United States. Not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”

Oy gevalt!

We ought to be grateful to Kristol for his assiduous research: while I have praised Hagel in the past, I didn’t know he was this good. Kristol’s list of Hagel’s ‘crimes” is a veritable compendium of what a reasonable American foreign policy, one based on American rather than Israeli interests, ought to look like.

Back in the winter of 2001, Hagel refused to sign a letter from America’s Likudniks demanding that President Bush not meet with Yasir Arafat. While Hagel didn’t cave, Bush did — and subsequently insisted the Palestinians hold elections. The Palestinians complied — and put Hamas in office, torpedoing the peace process (and giving the Israelis all the excuse they needed to keep negotiations at a standstill). In retrospect, Bush was a fool — the Israel lobby’s fool, that is — and Hagel’s principled stand was prescient.

Of course, the Likudniks had a “solution” to this: ban “terrorist groups” from the Palestinian elections. AIPAC circulated a letter to its congressional helots, addressing this demand to the administration: Hagel refused to sign that one, too, perhaps on the grounds that if such a standard had been applied to Israeli elections, not a single one of the founding leaders of the Jewish state would have been allowed to run for office. Yitzhak Shamir, who became Prime Minister of Israel on three separate occasions, was in charge of the Lehi terrorist group’s assassination squad during Israel’s fight for independence. Among his victims: a British minister, Lord Moyne, and Count Bernadotte of Sweden. The Irgun, the main Israeli terrorist organization, which murdered British soldiers and blew up the King David Hotel, was headed up by none other than Menachem Begin, who went on to become Prime Minister. The Haganah, an illegal “militia,” the pre-independence version of the IDF, was led by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. And the list goes on …

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, bombing hospitals, water plants, churches, and residential areas, killing and maiming thousands, President Bush backed the Israelis to the hilt — while Hagel called for an immediate ceasefire. Again, Hagel’s judgment, in retrospect, is proven superior to the range-of-the-moment political opportunism of his colleagues: before the invasion, Hezbollah’s armed wing had around 1,000 soldiers under arms, whereas afterwards that number tripled, and political support for the fundamentalist Islamic group soared to 80 percent of the Lebanese electorate. The invasion, instigated by neocons in the Bush administration, was a total flop, strengthening Israel’s avowed enemies.

Similarly, Hagel refused to sign yet another letter demanding the European Union declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, a gesture the hypocrisy of which was underscored due to the timing — in the midst of Israel’s terroristic bombing campaign. In the Likudnik lexicon, defending oneself against Israeli aggression equals “terrorism.”

Senator Hagel voted against Iran sanctions every time they came up for a vote, including meaningless symbolic gestures such as a Senate resolution designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a “terrorist” organization. The bill, which passed the Senate with only four “nays,” would have set up yet another tripwire for war with Iran, implicitly giving the President the green light to attack the Guards without congressional approval. While the prospect of war with Iran may thrill the laptop bombardiers over at the Weekly Standard, the vast majority of Americans are opposed to yet another war in the Middle East.

Among the greatest of Hagel’s crimes, according to Kristol, is that he believes Palestinians cannot “be expected to make democratic reforms as long as ‘Israeli military occupation and settlement activity’ continue, and that ‘Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace.’” This is not only the view of the Obama administration, it also reflects the views of the man in the street — the American street, that is.

Hagel is against US intervention in Syria and refused to vote for the “Syria Accountability Act,” which set the stage for US support for al-Qaeda-inspired “rebels” — a conflict the overwhelming majority of Americans say they want no part of. But what Americans want is of little concern to Kristol and his fellow neocons: for them, it’s all about Israel — and, of course, they never met a war they didn’t want to start.

Kristol’s list of Hagel’s deviations from neoconservative doctrine includes his endorsement of the Saudi peace plan, which would have required the Palestinians to recognize Israel in return for withdrawing from the West Bank and internationalizing Jerusalem. The plan was also endorsed by that notorious anti-Semite and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

Hagel’s biggest sin, however, is identifying the Israel lobby by name and declaring — in public — his willingness to defy it. This is going to be the locus of the controversy that is rapidly developing and will come to a head at his confirmation hearings — that is, if Obama doesn’t back down first and appoint someone else.

In an interview with Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator during the Clinton years, Hagel said he wasn’t intimidated by “the Jewish lobby,” and the Israel Firsters are ripping this out of context as alleged proof of his “anti-Semitism.” Yet Miller, hardly an anti-Semite, cited this approvingly, if you look at the quote in context. Bemoaning the “reflexively pro-Israel” votes of most members of Congress, Miller wrote that “being too one-sided isn’t good for Israel or America,” and went on to cite Hagel as an exception to the rule:

“’This is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage,’ Hagel continued. ‘Most of the time members play it safe and adopt an ‘I’ll support Israel’ attitude. AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, and ‘then you’ll get 80 to 90 senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters.’ When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign the letter, Hagel told me he responds: ‘I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter.’

Few legislators talk this way on the Hill. Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values. The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” but as he put it ‘I’m a United States senator not an Israeli senator.’”

Aside from narrowing the scope of the Israel lobby to being merely a “Jewish lobby” — when, in fact, it encompasses a huge cheering section of ignorant Christian fundamentalists who blindly support Israel for profoundly weird theological reasons — no reasonable person could find fault with Hagel’s remarks. But we aren’t dealing with reasonable people when it comes to the extremists who worship Israel over and above the interests of their own country — a description that most certainly does not include most Americans of the Jewish faith.

Hagel opposed the Iraq war when it wasn’t cool for Republicans to do so. He opposed the Afghan “surge” when even some alleged anti-interventionists supported that futile war. And while one insufferably priggish anti-interventionist, writing for a major conservative magazine, has described him as a “thoroughly conventional and hawkish internationalist,” this is laughable. Bill Kristol knows this, which is why he and his gang have gotten out the long knives..

Hagel was a distinctly unconventional Senator and will make a distinctively unconventional Defense Secretary, and a strong voice for peace in the foreign policy councils of this administration. Sure, he’s an “internationalist,” if that vague phrase has any meaning: as head of the Atlantic Council, which seeks to uphold and strengthen the Euro-American alliance, he can hardly be called an “isolationist,” a creature that doesn’t exist in American politics and a label Hagel’s critics are eager to pin on him. He is clearly a foreign policy “realist.”

And yet one can be an internationalist, as well as a “realist,” in the sense of wanting to engage with other countries in a constructive manner, and still qualify as an anti-interventionist. Internationalism and realism are worldviews, theoretical frameworks on which to hang specific policies: anti-interventionism, on the other hand, is a policy, one that defines American interests relatively narrowly and favors engagement over military action in defense of those interests.

One has to wonder, also, by what standard Hagel is to be judged as “thoroughly hawkish.” Unlike Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who has been busy distancing himself from the alleged “radicalism” of his father, voting for Iran sanctions, and getting in Jennifer Rubin’s good graces, Hagel opposed Iran sanctions and refused to kowtow to the Israel lobby. Yet Senator Paul is being pushed as the Great White Hope of the libertarian/anti-interventionist movement on the right, while Hagel is disdained by the American Conservative’s resident foreign policy “expert” as just another Washington warmonger. Go figure.

If President Obama refuses to be spooked by the Lobby’s display of polemical fireworks, and “pro-Israel” Democrats fail to get to him, the confirmation process will prove to be quite interesting. It will be the Israel lobby’s last stand, their one chance to check their declining influence and prove that Washington is still, as Pat Buchanan famously put it, “Israeli occupied territory.”

Instead of nipping at Hagel’s heels with sectarian criticisms of past errors, both real and imagined, anti-interventionists of the right and the left need to get behind this nomination and push it for it for all it’s worth. And it is worth something: as the War Party beats the drums for an attack on Iran, Hagel at DoD will prove something of an obstacle to the Bill Kristols of this world. Given the caveat that this administration is hardly committed to a policy of non-intervention, as the first four years of Obama’s presidency have clearly shown, we shouldn’t overlook the immense value of having a prominently placed brake in place over at the Pentagon.

The battle for peace consists of many small skirmishes, fought over a long stretch of years, as well as major battles, and this is one we need to win. So get ready for a mudslide of smears and innuendo as the Lobby homes in for the kill — because this one is going to be a battle to the death. And, I might add, for the benefit of certain professional pessimists: those who aren’t with us, are against us.


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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].