Likely new US defense chief seen backpedaling on opposition to Iran strike

Chuck Hagel ‘now in sync’ with Obama, says ADL head; Jewish hawks slam his voting record on Israel and his comments denigrating Jewish lobby

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Chuck Hagel arrives at Camp Ramadi, in central Iraq, for a short visit with US servicemen, July 22, 2008. (photo credit: courtesy United States Marine Corps)
Chuck Hagel arrives at Camp Ramadi, in central Iraq, for a short visit with US servicemen, July 22, 2008. (photo credit: courtesy United States Marine Corps)

Chuck Hagel, widely expected to become America’s next defense secretary, has a questionable voting record regarding pro-Israel resolutions and has in the past resolutely refused to consider using force to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which has led many in the pro-Israel camp to oppose his nomination.

But recent statements he has made indicate a willingness to reconsider his stance on Iran.

“War with Iran is not inevitable, but US national security would be seriously threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran,” according to a recent Washington Post op-ed Hagel co-authored, indicating he no longer outright opposes military action if all other options fail. Any decision to attack the regime in Tehran should be governed by a “fact-based discussion of the objectives, costs, benefits, timing, capabilities and exit strategy,” according to the article, which was published in September.

“If the United States attacks, it could set back for several years Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. If the objective were large-scale damage to Iran’s military and weapons capability, the United States could achieve substantial success,” the article states, adding that “large numbers of troops on the ground” would be necessary to finally eliminate Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon, or force the regime to capitulate to Washington’s demands.

“I think that’s a pragmatic change based on the expectation that he would be seriously considered by the Obama administration for a high-level position,” Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League told The Times of Israel. “He’s now in sync with the president’s approach to Iran.” US President Barack Obama has repeatedly stated that he seeks to exhaust diplomatic means and sanctions before resorting to military force, but that all options remain on the table.

While Foxman said Hagel would not have been his first choice as defense secretary, he did not join the chorus of hawkish US-Jewish leaders who said the former Nebraska senator was unacceptable due to his stance on Iran and his otherwise questionable track record on matters pertaining to Israel.

“The secretary of defense is not an independent contractor,” Foxman said. Even if Hagel were to oppose a strike on Iran in 2013, he would have to execute any orders he received from the president, Foxman added.

Hagel, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran and currently the chair of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, is seen as the front-runner to succeed Leon Panetta. An official nomination, which is expected later this week or early next week, would have to be confirmed by the Democratically-controlled Senate, but it seems likely that Hagel would pass, as senior Republicans have indicated they would not seek to oppose his appointment. Panetta is set to step down in early 2013.

Many in the pro-Israel community worry about Hagel because in the past he expressed his opposition to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and instead advocated directly engaging with Tehran.

“You cannot push the Iranians into a corner where they can’t get out,” he said, for example, in an interview in March. “You’ve got to find some quiet ways — and you don’t do this in the press or by giving speeches — to give them a couple of face-saving ways out of this thing so they get something out of this, too.”

Back in 2006, Hagel reportedly said that “a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a feasible, responsible option.” He added that “a political settlement” will have to be the answer to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

A year later, he wrote a letter to Obama urging him “to consider pursing direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran.”

But it’s not just Hagel’s stance on Iran that has hawkish Jewish leaders up in arms.

His opponents also fault him for calling for direct negotiations with Hamas and refusing to urge the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. He also refused to support several petitions promoted by the pro-Israel camp, such as in 2005, when he was one of only 27 senators who did not sign a letter urging then-president George W. Bush to pressure the Palestinian Authority to exclude terrorist groups from participating in the Palestinian legislative elections.

“Chuck Hagel’s record is one of being a frightening and dangerous apologist for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as for the terrorist regime of Iran, while being arguably one of the most vicious and hostile critics of Israel,” the Zionist Organization of America said in a statement Monday, calling the former senator an “Iran- and terrorist-apologist and Israel-basher.”

“We are horrified and shocked about the prospect of Chuck Hagel serving as Secretary of Defense. As a senator, Hagel accrued one of the worst anti-Israel records of any member of Congress,” said Morton Klein, the group’s president.

“It is a matter of fact that his record on these issues puts him well outside the mainstream Democratic and Republican consensus,” Josh Block, a former spokesman for the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, told reporters.

“The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel,” agreed Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, according to The Associated Press.

A spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council did not respond to a Times of Israel query before this article was posted. But back in 2007, when Hagel considered running for president, the organization reportedly said he “has a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel.”

Foxman, too, found fault with Hagel’s track record, but said it was not grounds to protest his nomination.

“His positions on Israel could be much better; they are problematic,” Foxman said. “But here again, he will concur with the administration’s views and policies. He has evidenced tendencies which would give us pause for concern, but not enough to oppose him for a high-level position.”

Hagel is also accused by some of believing in a Jewish conspiracy dominating Washington’s foreign policy considerations, mostly because of a sentence he uttered in a 2006 interview with Middle East analyst and ex-Clinton administration official Aaron David Miller: “The political reality is… that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

“Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite,” a top Republican Senate aide told reporters last week. “Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls US foreign policy. This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.”

But according to a report in the Open Zion blog, Miller said Hagel’s controversial quote was “hijacked” by his detractors. “I don’t think there’s a Senator of note in the Senate who is not pro-Israel,” Miller said. “But there is a difference between a special relationship with Israel and an exclusive relationship with Israel. I believe in the former and Chuck Hagel believes the former.”

Regarding his statement about the intimidating Jewish lobby, Foxman said: “It’s an unfortunate expression; one wonders to what extent it’s a mindset… It shows that he has an issue with certain issues relating to Israel, and that gives us pause for concern.”

Support for Hagel comes from the dovish, “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street, which hailed his “honorable record” in opposing the Iraq war, attempting to engage Iran in dialogue and believing in peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“J Street believes former US Senator Chuck Hagel would be a fine choice as Secretary of Defense and is appalled by efforts surfacing in recent days to question his commitment to the state of Israel and to Middle East peace,” the group said in a statement on Monday.

“Sen. Hagel has been one of the most thoughtful voices in Washington for two decades on questions relating to American policy in the Middle East,” it added. “He has also been a staunch friend of the State of Israel and a trusted ally in the Senate, speaking out on behalf of America’s commitment to Israel’s security.”

Hagel himself is on record saying that his first priority is the United States. “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator,” he said in 2008. “I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”

Most Popular
read more: