What The Hagel Fight Reveals

Peter Beinart explains what the struggle over Hagel's nomination teaches us about the American Middle East debate.

What’s so fascinating about the Hagel fight is that it’s a kind of MRI of the American Middle East debate, revealing previously difficult to detect fractures. Here are three.

The Republican Party of the 1980s versus the Republican Party of Today. From former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci to former Senator Nancy Kassebaum-Baker to former Senator and Navy Secretary John Warner to Colin Powell to former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills to Richard Armitage to former NSC Advisor Brent Scowcroft to former Republican Senator William Cohen, it’s striking how many of the Republican heavyweights from the Reagan and Bush I eras have come out in favor of Hagel, and how few have come out against him. (Off the top of my head, Elliot Abrams is the only prominent ex-Reagan administration official who has denounced Hagel that comes to mind). Current GOP Senators keep denouncing Hagel as out of the “mainstream,” but his views are well within the mainstream of Republicans who served during the glory days of Republican foreign policy. It’s a useful reminder of how much further right the GOP has moved on foreign policy since the 1980s when the United States had barely any ground forces in Central Asia and the Middle East, when Ronald Reagan refused to invade Panama on the grounds that it might prove another Vietnam, and when the Gipper hatched a plan to abolish all nuclear weapons.

This isn’t true only for Republican politicians but for Republican-aligned commentators as well. Try to guess who wrote the following? “There are theorists who would happily burden us with the mission of monitoring and maintaining a ‘balance of power’ among other nations, large and small, in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, etc. This would make the United States the ‘world’s policeman’ for the status quo, or at least the world’s arbiter for all changes in the status quo…We are just not going to be that kind of imperial power…because ours is a democracy and the American people violently reject such scenario.” The answer: Irving Kristol writing in 1990. When the Cold War ended, Kristol proposed slashing the defense budget, withdrawing most U.S. troops from Europe and disbanding NATO. Jeane Kirkpatrick, another dominant figure in conservative foreign policy circles, agreed. Compare that to today when, if Hagel proposes too rapidly withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he’ll get called an isolationist by Irving’s son, William.

The Old Jewish Establishment Versus the New Jewish Right. Although we don’t often think about it this way, many of the groups that we consider within the “Israel lobby” face the same challenge as CNN: They’re bipartisan organizations in a super-partisan age. It’s absolutely crucial to the mission of groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee to be perceived as favoring neither Democrats nor Republicans, partly because they’re in the business of ensuring that the U.S.-Israel alliance survives whoever is in power and partly because although their official perspective on Israel is closer to today’s GOP, most of their members, I suspect, are still Democrats, many of whom feel quite attached to the party’s views on cultural issues like abortion. That’s why these mainstream groups have had to temper their criticism of the Obama-era Democrats, first during the Jerusalem platform fight this summer and now over Hagel.

Their problem is that in the younger generation, more and more of the hard-core “Pro-Israel” activists are Orthodox, and thus not committed to the Democratic cultural agenda. And not coincidentally, they’re mostly Republicans. As recently as the 1980s, being a right-leaning Jew was a little like being a right-leaning African-American: You might agree with the GOP on the issues but you still didn’t think you’d feel comfortable socially. That’s completely changed. The landmark moment may have been when Orthodox Jewish Republican Jack Abrahamoff established a (mediocre, though Washingtonians can’t be picky) kosher deli within spitting distance of the Capitol where the TV was always tuned to Fox. As a result, AIPAC—the young Jewish Republicans are less involved in AJC and ADL, which take liberal positions on domestic issues—must worry about losing these younger activists to newer, smaller and more partisan “Pro-Israel” groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition while still staying on good terms with Democrats. We’ve seen that division very clearly during the Hagel fight, where ECI and other partisan Republican Jewish groups have attracted lots of attention (and perhaps money) by loudly denouncing Hagel while groups like AIPAC have remained relatively silent. In a few years, if the parties continue to diverge on Israel and everything else, AIPAC could find itself the CNN to the ECI’s Fox and J Street’s MSNBC. We’re still far from that today, but may be moving slowly in that direction.

Jewish Pundits Versus Jewish Politicians. Among Jewish pundits—including centrist ones like Tom Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg—the Hagel fight has been a rout. It’s a clear sign that, as Israel’s rightward shift increasingly imperils the two state solution, even many of the most mainstream Jewish commentators can’t suppress their exasperation at the phony and evasive Israel debate in Washington. Yet a big part of the reason that debate is so phony and evasive is the Jewish Democrats in Congress. And while there are some prominent Jewish Dems, most notably California Senator Diane Feinstein, who are moving in J Street’s direction, the most powerful Jewish Democrats may be becoming even more cartoonishly right-wing on issues concerning the Jewish state. A good example is New York Representative Elliot Engel, the new top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has said Hagel has displayed “endemic hostility” to Israel. Engel replaces Howard Berman, who although well within the Washington “Pro-Israel” mainstream, was more moderate and sophisticated in his judgments. And the man who defeated Berman this fall, California Representative Brad Sherman, who will become the top Democrat on the House International Relations subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation and Human Rights, is also cruder and more hawkish than Berman in his Israel views.

What all this suggests is the increasing irrelevance of the term “Jewish mainstream.” Jewish Democrats in Congress virtually define what it means to be “mainstream” on Israel in Washington. So does Tom Friedman, and yet the gulf between them is vast and growing because Friedman is shifting his views in response to the realities on the ground in Israel and key Jewish Democrats in Congress are pretending those realities don’t exist.