Chuck Hagel: Revising U.S. Strategic Postures?

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel listens as President Barack Obama announces his nomination as secretary of defense at the White House on June 7. (Photo: Brooks Kraft, Corbis)

U.S. President Barack Obama has begun replacing departing cabinet level officials from his first term. As expected, he has nominated Democratic Senator John Kerry to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Although some commentators have expressed reservations about his being too Pakistan friendly, it is expected that he will sail through the confirmation process in the Senate. But Obama's choice of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to replace the retiring Leon Panetta as defense secretary became controversial even before the formal announcement on Jan. 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 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 apologized 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 in the Vietnam War 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 W. Bush's war in Iraq cost him support within his party. But more than his past criticism of the conduct of the Iraq war, his calls for unconditional negotiations with Iran, including on the issue of 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. In 2006 Hagel said in an interview, "The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," meaning in the Senate. He added, "I am a United States Senator. I'm not an Israeli Senator."

Supporters of Israel in the United States don't buy the explanation 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 long-term interest. This touches on something that has long been whispered in policymaking circles in Washington but seldom articulated: whether U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East always converge, and further, whether it is possible to question U.S. policy related to Israel without being castigated as an anti-Semite. It begs the question of whether or not the United States must always fully support Israel regardless of the nature of the Israeli government, and even when it undertakes actions contrary to stated U.S. policy, such as continuing to build settlements in the occupied territories, obstructing the peace process, and acting with open hostility toward Iran as well as toward other Arab countries in the region. Unconditional support for Israel is the demand put forth by American Jewish organizations to members of the U.S. Congress, on which they condition their considerable financial and political support.

President Obama has himself been accused of being less than fully supportive of Israel, despite his frequent assertions that the U.S. bond with Israel is unbreakable. His relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been so distant that the latter made known his preference for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign. Despite or perhaps because of Netanyahu's many discourtesies to Obama, about 70 percent of Jewish Americans are believed to have voted Democrat.

When this issue has come up in the past—that of the Israeli tail that wags the American dog—the backlash from 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 argued that the United States has damaged its own interests in the Arab world through its blind support of Israel. So powerful was the Israel lobby that 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 United States by Farrar Strauss and Jerome in 2007.

In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter published a book titled "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," which elicited outrage from both Israel and its U.S. supporters. It mattered not that it was President Carter who 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. Incidentally, the Accords made Egypt a pariah in the Arab world because they created a guarantor of Israeli security. All those years later, while writing his book, Carter may have had misgivings about the consequences of Israeli intransigence toward 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 and other influential supporters of Israel in the U.S. Congress. It has not acquired a profile anywhere near that of those it challenges, but its continued existence is a sort of victory.

Whether or not Hagel gets confirmed, the Obama administration will continue to review its strategic posture in the Middle East. A decorated war veteran like Hagel, whose anti-war sentiments cannot be dismissed, may be the man to oversee a reduction in defense expenditure, 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 Eurozone crisis, are reducing their own defense commitments even more sharply. Also, this may not be a bad time to revive the peace process in a region where nothing has caused more resentment towards the United States as the suffering of the Palestinians.

This article was originally published by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Ambassador Neelam Deo is director at Gateway House in Mumbai. She has been India's ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast with concurrent accreditation to several West African countries, joint secretary for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar.