In Washington, where domestic policy is one conversation, foreign policy is another, and the Israel debate is a realm all its own, discussions of the sequester battle and the Hagel confirmation battle are usually separated by a commercial break. But when looked at together, the similarities are striking.
Near the heart of the sequester showdown lies the fact that in today’s Republican Party, any member of Congress who supports a tax increase—any tax increase—may lose his or her party primary to a Tea Party zealot. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush faced large budget deficits, each supported tax hikes as part of a plan to restore fiscal health. But today, Bush, who was once smack in the GOP’s ideological center, is reviled in Republican activist circles as a closet liberal. And even Reagan, though deified, could not prosper in today’s GOP given his numerous heresies against the conservative faith: from tax increases to immigration amnesty to the appointment of pro-choice Supreme Court justices.
On Hagel, the story is the same. There’s a reason so many Reagan and Bush I-era Republicans—from former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci to former senator Nancy Kassebaum-Baker to former senator and Navy secretary John Warner to former U.S. trade representative Carla Hills to former NSC adviser Brent Scrowcroft to Richard Armitage and Colin Powell—backed Hagel. It’s because his views on Israel, and on foreign policy in general, closely track the Republican thinking of that time. George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, it’s worth remembering, pressured the Jewish state more than either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, including by conditioning U.S. loan guarantees on a settlement freeze. (That’s why in the 1992 campaign, Clinton attacked Bush on Israel from the right).
But it wasn’t only Bush. At Hagel’s confirmation hearings, Republican senators flayed him for supporting the abolition of nuclear weapons, something Ronald Reagan pursued far more aggressively than Barack Obama has. Republicans attacked Hagel for being insufficiently hawkish on Hizbullah. But when Hizbullah blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983, Reagan didn’t take the fight to the terrorists; he quickly withdrew all remaining U.S. troops. On Iran, Republicans accused Hagel of being insufficiently pro-war. But when it came to direct military action, Reagan—who never invaded a country larger than Grenada—was more dovish than all his successors. Near the end of Reagan’s term, when Elliott Abrams pushed him to send U.S. troops to overthrow Manuel Noriega in Panama, Reagan angrily refused, warning that it could turn into another Vietnam.
And on Israel, Reagan said and did things that would turn Ted Cruz’s hair white. Reagan didn’t merely sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia over Israeli objections. When AIPAC launched a lobbying campaign to stop the sale, Reagan declared, “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.” When Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Reagan backed a U.N. resolution condemning the Jewish state and delayed various arms sales. And in August 1982, after Israel bombed Beirut for 11 straight hours, Reagan called Israel’s prime minister, a man whose family had largely perished at Nazi hands, and said, “Menachem, this is a Holocaust.”
The point isn’t that Reagan’s statements and actions were laudable. It’s that once upon a time, Republicans tolerated a level of criticism of Israeli policy that is unthinkable today. As on taxes, the bar for what’s considered “pro-Israel” in today’s GOP has been so dramatically raised that even the staunchest right-wingers are in danger of failing to qualify. On Hagel, right-wing activists didn’t merely demand that Republican senators vote no. They demanded that they support a filibuster, something never before done in a fight over a secretary of defense nominee.
And it’s not only Republican senators who risk being considered insufficiently “pro-Israel.” So does AIPAC. As I reported this summer, AIPAC grew terrified during the Democratic National Convention after its decision to bless a platform that didn’t include language on Jerusalem left it exposed to attacks from the right. After Hagel’s confirmation vote, right-wing Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin attacked AIPAC for failing to publicly oppose him. She contrasted its timidity with a bellicose anti-Hagel salvo from the Christian-right group, Concerned Women for America. “Now that,” Rubin declared, “is what the pro-defense and pro-Israel lobbies sound like.”
There you have it. For Jennifer Rubin, the “pro-Israel” gold standard is Concerned Women of America, a group whose policy agenda is only slightly more popular among the mass of American Jews than is the policy agenda of Hamas.
Intellectually, there’s a larger story here about the decline of conservative foreign-policy thinking. To go within a quarter century from Owen Harries, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Irving Kristol to Jennifer Rubin, Michael Goldfarb, and Ben Shapiro is a pretty steep descent. But politically, what matters is that on Israel, as on taxes, today’s GOP has become a parody of its former self. The interesting question is whether, when it comes to Israel, any prominent Republicans will have the courage to say so out loud.