Schumer Defects from Pro-Israel Cause, Backs Hagel for Defense; Confirmation Likely

Partisan loyalty trumped pro-Israel policy as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) announced, over the objection of many of his constituents, that he would support the nomination of former Sen Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as Secretary of Defense today. Pro-Israel Democrats in the Senate majority who might have voted against Hagel, are now likely to support him in the wake of Schumer’s decision, making Hagel’s confirmation all but certain.

Even as pro-Israel advocates mobilized against Hagel’s appointment, the White House has worked hard behind the scenes to shore up his support. Yesterday, Hagel delivered a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in which he expressed regret for his controversial comments about a “Jewish lobby” (though, as with an anti-gay remark in 1998, Hagel made the apologetic gesture to a third party, not to the target of his offensive comment).

Schumer’s announcement coincides with a long essay by Arianna Huffington in today’s Huffington Post in which she describes Hagel as a “neoconservative nightmare” and attempts to debunk criticisms of his candidacy. As with other defenses of Hagel, the Huffington post article does not make the case for Hagel--whose focus was foreign affairs, not defense, in his Senate days--but rather argues against Hagel’s opponents.

For example, Huffington attempts to dismiss concerns about Hagel’s temperament, calling them a “modern-day male version of the old dig that used to be directed at women.” Yet President Barack Obama himself made John McCain’s “temperament” an issue in the 2008 campaign--even mentioning it in his nomination acceptance speech--and Democrats rejected UN Ambassador John Bolton based on “temperament” concerns.

Huffington makes clear that the primary reason that President Obama nominated Hagel, and that Democrats are willing to overlook his anti-abortion, anti-climate change views, is that Hagel emerged as a potent critic of the Iraq War. Like many on the left, Hagel also has expressed the view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “core” of Middle East turmoil, and now supports defense cuts that he once warned strongly against.

Hagel’s supporters have been at great pains (even to the point of concocting outright lies) to defend him against charges of antisemitism--charges prompted by his poor record on Israel and his statement that members of Congress were “intimidated” by the so-called “Jewish lobby.” More than a poor choice of words, his critics argue, Hagel’s statement reflects a particular animus towards Israel and its political supporters.

The 2006 speech on the Senate floor in which Hagel called for a more even-handed approach to Israel and the Arab world is a case in point. Hagel’s words came at a time when Israeli civilians were under attack by Iranian-backed Hebollah, and Israel was isolated at the United Nations. Hagel’s premature call for an immediate cease-fire would have prevented Israel from responding to the threat--and sent a message of opposition.

Other critics, such as Alan Dershowitz, have focused less on Hagel’s position on Israel or his statement about a “Jewish lobby” and have instead questioned his policy towards Iran. Hagel has not only opposed military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program; he has also, at times, opposed sanctions. His appointment as Secretary of Defense sends a signal that the United States is not serious about countering the Iranian nuclear threat.

Huffington’s article barely mentions Iran, but does attempt to deal with another serious problem in Hagel’s record: namely, his staunch opposition to the surge in Iraq, which Hagel predicted would fail. Not only does Huffington defend Hagel’s position, but she even attempts to claim he was right: “Since then it's become accepted gospel in Washington that the surge was successful. Accepted gospel that is, once again, wrong.”

Hagel’s supporters are not concerned about the facts of the surge, or whether Hagel is qualified for the job. What they want is a weakened Department of Defense, and with the appointment of an anti-war war veteran, they have one. Hagel’s opponents have not given up, but Schumer’s defection from the pro-Israel cause, and the willingness of gay advocates and green activists to overlook Hagel’s contrary past, have virtually sealed the win.


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