Is Obama feared?

12.25.12

Why The Hagel Trial Balloon Popped

The Chuck Hagel trial balloon may have popped. The Washington rumor mill is now speculating that the former Nebraska Senator will not be nominated as Secretary of Defense. We historians prefer commenting on what actually happens, rather than interpreting the speculation that a proposed action that never occurred in the first place may not now take place. Still, some lessons have emerged from this round of squabbling, whether or not future rounds take place.

First, we saw how ready some voices in the pro-Israel community are to go nuclear not just negative. As I have already argued on this site, there are many criticisms to make of Chuck Hagel’s suitability as Secretary of Defense without calling him an anti-Semite. Just as Israel’s supporters resent how quickly Israel’s enemies go from disagreeing with an Israeli policy to delegitimizing Israel itself, we should be equally careful not to make a parallel mistake. My objection is not only tactical here, it is moral. Too many people fit too comfortably in the category of anti-Semite; we should never try to shoehorn those who don’t quite fit in. And all of us in a democracy should be more hesitant before resorting to name-calling and slurs.

But just as too many in the pro-Israel community rushed to one side of the barricade, it was interesting to note a parallel action on the other side. Critics of AIPAC and the Jewish establishment such as J Street and Open Zion’s own Peter Beinart have long complained that the pro-Israel community marches in lockstep, taking far too predictable positions again and again. We can argue whether that is true another time. But watching these same critics march in lockstep in favor of Hagel made me fed up with the entire dance. The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss, as quoted in the Atlantic, was most explicit. Claiming that “the Israel lobby” was “mobilizing all neoconservative hands on deck to stop Obama from picking Hagel,” he declared: “On those grounds alone, I'm for Hagel.”

The debate about Israel, about the Middle East, and about American foreign relations should be too subtle, too multi-dimensional, too dynamic for so many leading voices to take predictable positions again and again. This Kabuki dance propelling some right and others just as automatically left should become more free form.

Finally, the Hagel haggle highlighted a critical lesson for the pro-Israel community. I knew Hagel was in trouble when I read that women’s groups were complaining about his maleness and whiteness—two traits shared with the new Secretary of State-designate, John Kerry. Activism is usually most effective as part of a broader coalition. Finding common cause or common enemies is essential to successful, long-term strategies.

If indeed someone else is nominated as Secretary of Defense, the politics of the Hagel non-nomination will telegraph presidential weakness, yet again. As with the Susan Rice nomination, Obama will appear too cautious and too easily rolled. Presidents, like all good executives, must be feared to be effective. Does anyone inside or outside the Beltway fear Barack Obama?