Senseless “controversies” break out constantly in Washington, D.C. Political media habitually magnify the most inane, insider-y machinations and petty divisions, which most of the time can be safely ignored. But the ongoing dispute over Chuck Hagel is worth paying attention to, if only because it has provided such useful insight into the nature of modern D.C. governing norms.
Hagel is a former Republican senator from Nebraska known for his nonconformity and expertise in foreign policy issues. A Vietnam War veteran, he was highly-revered by members of both parties during his twelve years in office. Though Hagel voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, he quickly became one of George W. Bush‘s most trenchant critics on war policy, gaining bipartisan credibility by virtue of pointing out a fellow Republican’s catastrophic blunders. Years later, Hagel has been largely vindicated on this score.
Barack Obama reportedly desires to nominate Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense. In recent history, such appointments are not subject to the sort of political gamesmanship that, say, nominees to the Supreme Court must navigate; the president is normally given a fair amount of leeway to install his preferred National Security personnel. One might have further assumed that Hagel’s confirmation process would be especially smooth, given his experience and high stature.
Instead, a smear campaign — shocking even by D.C. standards — was unleashed to destroy Hagel’s hopes. The very same crew of hyper-aggressive neoconservative elites who brought us the failed Iraq War and the failed Romney campaign are once again asserting their dominance over the Washington “conversation,” and amazingly, it seems possible that Hagel will be forced to withdraw from consideration as a consequence.
Hagel is no radical, but in the past has suggested that capriciously attacking foreign nations and imposing “crippling sanctions” could be damaging to U.S. interests abroad. Among powerful D.C. foreign policy circles, this is simply unconscionable.
Astonishingly, Hagel also stands accused of being an anti-Semite. Bill Kristol‘s arch-interventionist Weekly Standard magazine ran a story in which an anonymous “top Republican Senate aide” was quoted as declaring, “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.” By the lights of this anonymous aide, who may as well not even exist (some journalistic standards!) Hagel is an anti-Semite because he said in 2008, “The political reality is that… the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
Here’s a good primer on past usage of “Jewish lobby” as a term of endearment by the likes of former Jerusalem Post Washington correspondent and current CNN figurehead Wolf Blitzer.M.J. Rosenberg observes:
In short, Hagel is an anti-Semite because he stated that the “Jewish lobby” both exists and “intimidates”…
It is true that it is impolitic to use the term “Jewish lobby” rather than “Israel lobby” […] In any case, the term Jewish lobby is accurate when one refers to organizations like the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League, etc. They are Jewish organizations and not AIPAC, the registered Israel lobby.
In D.C., making a basic statement of fact — Jewish lobbying interests exert pressure on legislators like every other lobbying group — is portrayed as tantamount to harboring hatred for Jews. And we wonder why political discourse in this country, especially with respect to Israel, is so constricted. If even Chuck Hagel, a decorated former Marine and straight-talking Nebraskan Republican, can’t question Israel’s clearly outsized influence on American policymaking without being subject to such vile allegations, who can?
One of the leading anti-Hagel crusaders is Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. Over the course of the 2012 election cycle, Rubin dispensed with all pretense of journalistic impartiality and became a full-fledged Romney surrogate. After election day, she admitted to repeatedly deceiving her readership over the course of the campaign, praising Romney at various points when in reality she was disconcerted by his ineptitude. But rather than suffer any professional consequences for her admitted deceptions, Rubin’s influence has apparently only grown.
Likewise, Rubin’s former boss, John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, has lent his efforts to the assault against Hagel. Podhoretz’s punditry throughout the 2012 election cycle was proven wildly wrong, but similarly to Rubin, his platform is bigger than ever. If Rubin and Podhoretz are not discredited yet, they never will be.
Consider the destructive incentives at work here: advocate for disastrous foreign policy misadventures that kill hundreds of thousands of people and destabilize an entire region, lie brazenly on behalf of a failed candidate, publish wholly unsubstantiated charges of “anti-Semitism” — and what do you receive in return? Even greater power.
If Hagel’s nomination is derailed by these noxious slurs, it will set an awful precedent. The corrosive culture of Washington, which appears to be worsening by the day, never ceases to amaze. You can sign a White House petition in his defense and/or call your U.S. senators. With enemies like these, Hagel must be doing something right.