Did Chuck Hagel Cave?

Ali Gharib on how restating one's positions in the face of right-wing distortions does not mean caving.

Did Barack Obama's defense pick, Chuck Hagel, cave to the right-leaning pro-Israel lobby in his views on Iran and Israel? Maybe a little, but not as much as right-wing distortions of his record would have you believe.

In his meeting with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) this week, Defense Secretary-designate Hagel assuaged the hawkish pro-Israel Democrat's "genuine concerns over certain aspects of his record on Israel and Iran," yielding a crucial endorsement. BuzzFeed's Ben Smith was quick to declare that the "pro-Israel lobby won the Chuck Hagel fight," despite, curiously, the absence of any centrist groups opposing Hagel's nomination and even support for him on the pro-Israel left. Smith noted some reversals for Hagel: "Schumer cites 'several key assurances'" in his statement about the meet, Smith wrote. "I count about 12 points, most of them related to Israel and Iran, on which Hagel has reversed past positions or his perceived stances, points that now come across in Schumer's voice, but which he will have to presumably reiterate in his own words in televised hearings." Smith's piece got further consideration at the New Republic, where Alec MacGillis compared Hagel's reversals, such as they were, with pressure put on by the pro-Israel far right, most notably the Bill Kristol-led Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), observing that the group "manages to shape the debate even in defeat."

Both cases are overstated, but there is certainly some truth to what they wrote. On the former score, Smith's dozen reversals include "perceived stances." That is to say, he lends credit to right-leaning groups for making Hagel restate his positions which these groups have distorted beyond recognition. For example, Hagel has said repeatedly over the past few years that all options should remain on the table in dealing with Iran. But ECI cherry-picked one quote from 2006 when Hagel declared that attacking Iran was "not a viable, feasible, responsible option." At the height of the Iraq insurgency and with a standing army in Afghanistan, who among us—other than the "bomber boys," Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Dick Cheney—thought attacking Iran was a viable option? The same applies to Hagel's past opposition to some—but not all—unilateral sanctions against Iran. A letter by Hagel to Sen. Barabara Boxer (D-CA) laid things out even more clearly than Schumer's statement (on many of these subjects). In it, Hagel stated that he "completely support(s Obama's) policy on Iran"—including unilateral sanctions. This reflects a shift from his Senate record (pre-2008), but not a shift from an interview this May, where he said of Iran: "I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way."

Smith and McGillis, however, are right that one of the virtues of Chuck Hagel held up by progressives was his skepticism about the efficacy of military strikes against Iran. "On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country," Schumer said in his statement (apparently unawares of the hilarious contradiction arising from the conflation of "all options" and a military military attack). "Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do 'whatever it takes' to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons." That's a shame, because "whatever it takes" is a clear nod to a military attack, which cannot "stop" Iran's nuclear progress, only delay it. This was the sort of forthright discussion Hagel, in an op-ed last year with an array of ex-brass and elder statesman, said the nation should have before attacking; he seems not to think the confirmation process, at least, is the right time to have it. Does that mean, once ensconced at the Pentagon, he'll not privately counsel Obama with these observations in mind? I doubt it. But, since Hagel understands that his role will be to follow the president's lead, that may well leave the national discourse on the matter lacking, perhaps just up to the brink of an actual strike. Hagel and Obama would both be well-served to bear in mind that this isn't how democracies are supposed to operate.

Hagel's stances on Lebanon and Hezbollah are also instructive. Schumer's statement about his meeting with Hagel said: "On Hezbollah, Senator Hagel stressed that—notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past—he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization." Hagel's letter to Boxer was even more clear: "I have always believed that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and often stated so in my 2008 book and in many public remarks," Hagel wrote, pointing to specific speeches to the Senate in 2006 and at University of Nebraska in 2007. Is distorting an accurate look at someone's positions and thereby forcing them to reiterate their stance "shaping the debate"? Another example was Hagel's calls for George W. Bush to press for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah during their brief 2006 war. ECi's director (in name only) Noah Pollak held this up recently as a prime example of of Hagel seeking "to pressure Israel." But in his letter to Boxer, Hagel was firm. Noting that he'd supported Israel's right to self-defense in a speech, Hagel added: "I also spoke about the importance of another American friend, the Government of Lebanon," making a distinction with Hezbollah. That doesn't sound like ECI's pressure worked even to frame the debate: Hagel remained exactly in line with his 2006 remarks.

"Schumer has to play a game," a Democratic Hill aide told me the other day, explaining why the New York Senator was withholding his endorsement. Likewise, so does Hagel. There's no doubt that Schumer's in line with the pro-Israel lobby writ large—the New Yorker's Connie Bruck noted that Schumer is "not known for his independence from the lobby"—but that doesn't quite mean he's in the thrall of Kristol and ECI. After all, many pro-Israel advocates go to great lengths to say they don't want war with Iran, even as they want to keep options on the table for dealing with it. This stance is only marginally different from Chuck Hagel's old positions, and fully consistent with his newly stated ones. ECI, on the other hand, wants war, like, yesterday.