Obama's Appointments

Elliott Abrams's Truth Problem

Ali Gharib on Elliott Abrams's mendacity and his accusations against Chuck Hagel.

Why does anyone still take Elliott Abrams seriously? After a role in a scandalous cover-up of U.S.-backed atrocities in El Salvador in the 1980s, Abrams was finally held to account, if only for a decade, when he plead to convictions on two misdemeanor counts—and was disbarred—for lying to Congress, under oath, in the Iran-Contra affair. By the 21st century, however, Abrams was back and took up residence in the second Bush administration, where he led the way on disastrous policy after disastrous policy. And yet Abrams's postings under Bush somehow rehabilitated his image, leading after his departure from government to a posting at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Despite what you think might be a well-established lack of credibility and judgement, Abrams got invited by National Public Radio to discuss the nomination of Chuck Hagel to serve as Barack Obama's defense chief. Here's the rather remarkable ending of the exchange with host Melissa Block:

ABRAMS: I think he has a chance at his confirmation hearing to show that he is not what he appears to be, which is frankly an anti-Semite. It's not just being anti-Israel. He's got a problem with what he calls "the Jews," "the Jewish lobby." I think if he cannot satisfy people that he is not, in fact, bigoted against Jews, he certainly should not be confirmed.BLOCK: You're saying, Mr. Abrams, that you consider Chuck Hagel to be an anti-Semite, not just have to positions on Israel that you don't agree with, but you consider him to be an anti-Semite.ABRAMS: I think if you look at statements by Hagel, and then you look at the statements by the Nebraska Jewish community - about his unresponsiveness to them, his dismissal of them, his hostility to them—I don't understand really how you can reach any other conclusion that he seems to have some kind of problem with Jews. ...There's an animus here, an animus that was visible to the Jews of the Nebraska. And that's what the committee needs to look into.

I was surprised that Block sounded surprised at Abrams's answer. After all, Abrams wrote more or less the same same thing on the website of the Weekly Standard, the very publication that launched the first attack scurrilously labeling Hagel an anti-Semite. In the piece, Abrams cited the testimony of several members of the Nebraska Jewish community who go on at great length in an article for a far-right wing Jewish newspaper. Abrams went on: "And the record seems unchallenged: Nebraskan Jewish activists and officials have said he was hostile, and none—including Obama supporters and Democratic party activists—have come forward to counter that allegation." Except the unanimity Abrams relies on simply does not exist. Late last year, the Israeli-born Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska, wrote the local paper to note his long friendship with Hagel and recounted the defense chief-designate's visits to his congregation. The next day, Azriel told the Huffington Post that the anti-Semitism accusations against Hagel were "extremely stupid, and definitely not helpful."

Earlier this week, I spoke to another member of the Nebraska Jewish community, Richard Robinson, the head of Norfolk Iron and Metal in Norfolk, Nebraska. "The guy would be a superb Secretary of Defense. He's very intelligent. He's very worldly," Robinson said of Hagel, whom he described as a friend of nearly 20 years. I asked about the allegations of anti-Semitism, like those hurled by Abrams: "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. He's very fair and open-minded," Robinson told me. "He doesn't have an ounce of bigotry in him. He's not anti-Semitic; he's not anti-Israel. I can't believe people are making these accusations about him." If Abrams had bothered to do a little research instead of relying solely on a right-wing newspaper, he would have seen that the unanimity he holds up is a sham.

The other story Abrams recounts to insist that Hagel's Senate confirmation hearing focus on purported anti-Semitism is the case of the USO station in Haifa, Israel. A decorated Vietnam vet, Hagel helmed the USO, an organization dedicated to caring for military service members abroad. Accusations recently surfaced on a neoconservative blog alleging that Hagel sought to shutter the Haifa USO station (with some alleged unsavory language along the way). At the Standard, Abrams cited the blog: "The Israeli who headed the USO site, Gila Gerson, was later given a prize by the U.S. Navy for her work. There seems little doubt that USO Haifa was immensely successful and valued," he wrote. "It’s in that context that Hagel’s 1989 effort to shut it down, and his comments when doing so, become problematic." The original right-wing item noted in passing that, in fact, under Hagel's leadership the Haifa station was kept open even as ten others in the region closed. (Hagel took the indebted organization into the black, which as recently as last Nov. 3 was the sort of thing Republican partisans held up as a qualification to be President, let along Defense chief.) What's more, the research was again lacking: the Atlantic's Steve Clemons bothered to get on the horn to Gerson (also Gerzon). "I admire him. I have great respect for him," the longtime USO Haifa head told Clemons. "For me, it was an absolute gift of God and for our volunteers when Chuck Hagel came to Israel." Clemons also spoke to a host of other American and Israeli officials involved with the USO who were roundly supportive of Obama's defense pick, and concluded that this neoconservative attack, too, was "groundless."

Abrams wrote that Hagel has not apologized for being anti-Semitic, as he did for his anti-gay remarks nearly a decade and a half ago. Again, Abrams doesn't note the report by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank that, with regard to the term "Jewish lobby," "Hagel said he misspoke (he used the phrase “Israel lobby” elsewhere in the interview)." Of course, an apology would be admitting guilt—something Hagel was right to do for his anti-gay remarks. Only Hagel's supposed anti-Semitism is a slander pushed almost exclusively by a small coterie of neoconservatives. The only relatively moderate Israel lobby group carrying this mantle is the American Jewish Committee, which, much to its shame, continues to suggest Hagel is soft on anti-Semitism by pushing a story of Hagel refusing to sign a single letter by omitting any of the context. Even Abe Foxman has backed away from anti-Semitism allegations.

Abrams's remarks about Hagel are getting noticed: the Council on Foreign Relations, as establishment as think tanks get, is facing pressure to be answerable for its fellow's baseless accusations. Remarkably, CFR pushed out Henry Siegman after "complaints from Jewish members" about his outspoken criticisms of Israel's right-wing leadership. One wonders if the group faces similar complaints about Abrams's conduct. And that gets at the real scandal here, which is not Chuck Hagel's record, but that anyone takes Abrams at his word despite his voluminous history of mendacity.