Smear Campaign

Danielle Pletka's Bogus Charge Sheet Against Chuck Hagel

Ali Gharib on the continuing absurd charges of anti-Semitism against Chuck Hagel.

Perhaps when asking the question, "Chuck Hagel, anti-Semite?", as the American Enterprise Institute vice president Danielle Pletka does in her blogpost headline, one would start by evaluating the charges against him. But Pletka defies logic from the get-go: "First, the nay-sayers, because denying the charge is actually easier than leveling it." It's almost as if there's no causal relationship between the two! As Peter Beinart has pointed out, leveling these charges is actually pretty easy: there seems to be no price ever paid for falsely making such attacks. Nonetheless, Pletka goes on to parry every defense of Hagel with nuanced criticisms that supposedly reveal how hollow they are, then credulously reproduce every accusation against the former Nebraska senator with no critical eye whatsoever.Only because it does make sense, let's take on these issues in the reverse of Pletka's order. Here's the passage where she lines up the charges against Hagel:

There are just a few straws in the wind that prompt some to believe that underneath it all, Hagel just doesn’t care for the Jews or Israel. Partly, it’s his reported reference to “the Jews,” and the clear fact that despite ample evidence to the contrary, he believes there is a monolithic creature that is “the Jews.” Partly, it’s his comments about “the Jewish lobby” despite the fact that the pro-Israel lobby is made up of both Christians and Jews. But these are far from dispositive. Perhaps it’s Hagel’s conviction that were it not for “the Jews,” US relations with the Middle East would be copacetic. Or his rather single-minded desire to protect Iran from unilateral US sanctions when other states just won’t go along. Even there, however, he has many political fellow travelers who have not been touched by the stench of Jew hatred. It could be his failure to stand against antisemitism with 99 other members of the Senate, or his rather inexplicable eagerness for direct talks with Hamas and Hezbollah, both designated terrorist groups. There, he’s a bit of a lone wolf in mainstream politics. It could even be his questionable taste in friends around Washington, or the fact that the government of Iran has welcomed his nomination. (Then again, so has the government of Israel.)

Now, applying a bit of that critical eye, Hagel's "reported reference to 'the Jews'" came from a single source in a right-wing blog post whose overall thrust was thoroughly debunked by the Atlantic's Steve Clemons. But that won't stop Pletka from getting maximum mileage out of it, even porting it to another one of her arguments—made to rebut a defense of Hagel—that he doesn't believe in the "special relationship" with Israel. You see, Hagel doesn't think the "special relationship" should come at the cost of other relationships; he calls that an "irresponsible and dangerous false choice." Pletka's remark about "Hagel’s conviction that were it not for 'the Jews,' U.S. relations with the Middle East would be copacetic" is a straw-man rendering of Hagel's very sensible point. As former State Department Mideast adviser Aaron David Miller told me recently, "[T]here is a difference between a special relationship with Israel and an exclusive relationship with Israel. I believe in the former and Chuck Hagel believes the former." It's painfully obvious which one Pletka believes in.

Miller's interview with Hagel, which the Wilson Center scholar wrote "stands apart for its honesty and clarity," was the source of the "Jewish lobby" quotation, which he told me was "hijacked." I've argued that term is inartful, impolitic and also, as Pletka points out, imprecise because of Christian pro-Israel sentiment. But that doesn't make it wholly inaccurate. As Rep. Gary Ackerman told the New Yorker: "The lobby, are they mostly Jews, do they advocate for the Jewish state? Yeah.” Who are we kidding when we pretend that much of the advocacy for Israel in Washington doesn't come from the organizational Jewish world? What's more, Pletka must ignore Dana Milbank's report in the Washington Post that, with regard to the term "Jewish lobby," "Hagel said he misspoke (he used the phrase “Israel lobby” elsewhere in the interview)."

Then Pletka must make pretend that Hagel supported no unilateral sanctions against Iran at all—which is wrong—in order to make the argument that she herself rebuts by saying this does not make for anti-Semitism. How this even got into her list of objections is beyond me: right-wing advocates of harsher measures against Iran—including a military attack—are always so hard-pressed to reinforce the notion that these actions are not to be undertaken solely for Israel's sake, but for Americans' sakes. Is it even reasonable to suggest, as Pletka does, that these actions are undertaken solely for the sake of Jews and that, as her raising it in this context implies, opposing such actions would constitute an affront to all Jewish people?

As for the charge about Hagel's "failure to stand against anti-semitism with 99 other members of the Senate," that's already been ably dealt with: Hagel didn't think it appropriate for Senators to write publicly to a foreign head of state about domestic political issues. Just like the American Jewish Committee, which originated the latter and continues to push the story, Pletka ignores the context: namely, that Hagel separately wrote Bill Clinton about the issue, and later, in 2006, sent a similar letter to George W. Bush urging that he raise issues of anti-Semitism with European leaders.

Pletka then brings up Hagel's "questionable taste in friends around Washington" without naming a single friend or why they're questionable. This is of course a transgression of the scholarly requirement to cite evidence so that others may evaluate it (and citations are so easy on blogs; they're called "hyperlinks"). Then there's the supposed endorsement of Iranian government officials—and Israeli ones. To paraphrase a now-famous Hagel remark to Miller, is Hagel being nominated for defense chief of Iran, or Israel? Then why should we care at all what these governments and their officials think?

Pletka goes on: "As to the protestation of Hagel’s eager defenders that he is not an anti-Semite, I would only ask: How do you know? Certainly, I do not know that he is one, nor am I convinced he is not." Yes, Dani, we cannot peer into the souls of men and know their true feelings, but that doesn't mean that charges should not be smacked down when they don't meet evidentiary standards. One might ask Pletka when she stopped beating her husband. (This "How do you know?" logic is the refuge of conspiracy theorists everywhere.)

Having run down her charges, I don't even feel the need to go through all of Pletka's absurd rebuttals to Hagel defenders. But it's worth noting that she dismisses his having Jewish supporters because he doesn't have all Jews supporting him: "Bottom line: 'Some Jews' won’t help. Jury still out." That's so hilarious precisely because Pletka tells us that belief in "a monolithic creature that is 'the Jews'" scores a point for the Hagel-is-an-anti-Semite crowd. What's more, Pletka ends her own blogpost with a joke that leverages a notion that there is a monolith called "the Jews" to like or dislike. Danielle Pletka, anti-Semite? Let me be clear in the way she could not: the answer is no.