‘The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
Those were the words of U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, as quoted by Middle East expert Aaron David Miller in a 2008 book.
“Up here” was Capitol Hill, of course. Five years later, Chuck Hagel has returned to the Senate, this time as Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense. At a confirmation hearing on Thursday, Hagel was asked about his dark reference to the “Jewish lobby.” Hagel said he regretted the phrase, and then added — just to remove any lingering doubts — “I think it’s the only time on the record I’ve ever said that.”
The theory here seems to be that to mutter about the jews off the record would be perfectly fine. Everybody does that end. It’s only when you go “on the record” that anti-Jewish muttering becomes problematic, at least in the mind of Chuck Hagel. And he only did that once! (At least as far as he can recall.) So what’s the big deal?
Unfortunately for Hagel, the exchange got worse from there. Hagel was pressed by Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina to cite some real-world examples of “intimidation” by the “Jewish lobby.” Hagel admitted he couldn’t think of any. Hagel had elsewhere referred to “dumb things” into which the United States had been pushed by the “Jewish lobby.” Could he be specific? No, again, he could not.
So it went. Rarely has a cabinet nominee for so high an office delivered such an awkward appearance before a Senate confirmation panel.
True, Hagel’s performance will not much matter. The Democrats have the votes to confirm Hagel, including those of the Democrats most associated with pro-Israel politics, such as New York’s Chuck Schumer. It would be unprecedented for the minority party to filibuster a cabinet appointee. American politics has a strong presumption that a president is entitled to be served by the people he wants. So Secretary Hagel it will likely be.
Not satisfied with this likely win on the main issue, though, some of Hagel’s supporters are complaining that he walked back too far with his apologies and regrets. Here’s my Daily Beast colleague Peter Beinart:
“Instead of speaking from the gut, [Hagel] said what he thought other politicians wanted to hear. That strategy failed because right-wingers like [John] McCain, [Lindsey] Graham, and [Ted] Cruz saw Hagel’s ideological incoherence and smelled his political fear.”
Steven Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a 2007 book that more than any other made respectable the paranoid view of Jewish political influence, lamented on Friday: