What is it about Chuck Hagel that makes conservatives write such inane things? A couple of weeks ago it was Bret Stephens flat-out calling Hagel an anti-Semite for using the term “Jewish lobby” in 2008. (The same term that Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, used last week.) Now it’s Rich Lowry writing this:
At the core of his [Hagel’s] foreign policy is disdain for Israel and unquenchable desire to talk to terrorists. His realism is a pastiche of attitudes fashionable at Council on Foreign Relations meetings or the World Economic Forum in Davos, crystalized into an idée fixe lacking all nuance or true thoughtfulness.
I’ve long liked and respected Lowry, but if he’s going to bash people for lacking “nuance” and “thoughtfulness,” he really shouldn’t write sentences like that. First, the claim that Hagel feels “disdain” for Israel. Lowry’s evidence? Because in 2002 Hagel said Israel should “take steps to show its commitment to peace" (advice Israel actually took the following year when it promised to halt settlement growth and dismantle illegal outposts under the Road Map for Peace). Because Hagel has opposed some Iran sanctions bills (while supporting others, something Lowry neglects to mention). Because Hagel wants Israel and America to talk directly to Hamas, something that, according to former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy, Israel is already doing. Because Hagel supports direct talks with the governments of Syria and Iran—thus continuing a tradition of direct talks with vile foreign leaders that includes Franklin Roosevelt’s negotiations with Stalin and continues through Richard Nixon’s talks with Mao Zedong and Ronald Reagan’s summits with Mikhael Gorbachev.
If Lowry wants to critique Hagel’s actual policy views, fine. Perhaps America and Israel should only negotiate with Hamas indirectly via Egypt. Perhaps America should impose every possible unilateral sanction against Iran, even those that alienate the Iranian people and undermine efforts to win stronger multilateral pressure at the U.N. Those might be reasonable arguments, if Lowry bothered to make them. But suggesting that because Hagel is more open talking to Israel’s adversaries than is Benjamin Netanyahu, he feels “disdain” for the Jewish state is the rough equivalent of saying that because Rich Lowry is less supportive of affirmative action than African-American leaders he feels “disdain” for blacks.
But Lowry doesn’t stop there. Unsatisfied with merely accusing Hagel of “disdain” for Israel, he calls such disdain “the core of his [Hagel’s] foreign policy.” The core? As even a passing familiarity with Hagel’s life story makes clear, the “core” of his worldview has nothing to do with Israel. It has everything to do with his service in Vietnam, and his resulting Colin Powell-like suspicion of Washington civilians who advocate war without realizing how costly, inefficient and hideous a foreign policy tool it really is. If Lowry wants to argue that Hagel’s Vietnam-induced skepticism of military force will make him too skittish about war with Iran, and thus bad for Israel, fine. But to claim that “disdain” for Israel stands at the “core” of Hagel’s worldview is just silly.
It gets worse. Having defined Hagel’s “realism” as “disdain for Israel and unquenchable desire to talk to terrorists,” Lowry then equates it with “attitudes fashionable at Council on Foreign Relations meetings or the World Economic Forum in Davos.” So now, via the transitive power, he’s accusing the Council on Foreign Relations and the World Economic Forum—with zero evidence—of “disdain” for Israel too. I’ve never been to Davos (which overcame its anti-Israel disdain long enough to host a speech last year by Israeli president Shimon Peres). But when it comes to CFR—where I worked for almost three years—I can say with some conviction that Lowry has no idea what he’s talking about. You can say a lot of things about an institution that houses Elliott Abrams and Max Boot but couldn’t stomach Henry Siegman, but you can’t call it disdainful of Israel.
The striking thing about Lowry’s column—like Stephens’s before it—isn’t that they fail to prove Hagel’s animus towards Jewish people or the Jewish state. It’s that they don’t even try hard. Judging from their columns, neither Lowry nor Stephens bothered to call Hagel, or any of the Jews he’s worked with over the years. Neither column displays any familiarity with Hagel’s record beyond the talking points endlessly recycled over the past couple of weeks in the conservative media.
The core truth is this: In American punditry today, you can casually accuse a decorated war hero of bigotry against Jews or Israel secure in the knowledge that while the accusation may destroy his career, it will never imperil your own. Until that changes, nothing will.