The Larger Question of Chuck Hagel

Exclusive: The up-in-the-air nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense Secretary has become a test of whether the Israel Lobby can still shoot down an American public servant who is deemed insufficiently passionate regarding Israel, a test that now confronts President Obama, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

The Israel Lobby is hell bent on sabotaging President Barack Obama’s tentative plan to appoint former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. And with Obama now dithering about this selection the Lobby and its neocon allies sense another impending victory.

Perhaps The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck described Hagel’s predicament best in assessing why the Israel Lobby is so determined to destroy the Nebraska Republican though he is “a committed supporter of Israel.”Former Sen. Chuck Hagel

But, as Bruck explained, “Hagel did not make the obeisance to the lobby that the overwhelming majority of his Congressional colleagues do. And he further violated a taboo by talking about the lobby, and its power.” Hagel had the audacity, in an interview for a 2008 book, to say something that you are not supposed to say in Official Washington, that the Israel Lobby pulls the strings on many members of Congress.

In Aaron Miller’s book, The Much Too Promised Land, Hagel is quoted as saying that Congress “is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage.” He added that when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, “you’ll get eighty or ninety senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters”, because, he added, they were “stupid.”

Finding Other Reasons

Yes, it’s true that when the neocon editors of the Washington Post decried the prospect of Hagel’s appointment to run the Pentagon, they cited a bunch of other reasons without mentioning Hagel’s independent thinking regarding Israel. For instance, the Post’s editors fretted over a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times, in which Hagel said, “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated. So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” What heresy!

The Post’s editors also questioned Hagel’s interest in avoiding another war with Iran, calling his interest in meaningful engagement with Iran “isolated.” The Post noted that Hagel “repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior.”

Though the Post noted that Hagel also wrote an op-ed last September that contained the usual refrain about “keeping all options on the table,” the neocon editors worried that a Defense Secretary Hagel might not be enthusiastic enough in carrying out the war option against Iran. Obama “will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision,” the Post wrote.

Yet, despite the Post’s avoidance of any mention about the controversy over Hagel and the Israel Lobby, you can bet that the editors were particularly worried that Hagel might become a strong voice within the Obama administration against simply following Israel’s lead on issues in the Middle East.

If Obama were to actually nominate Hagel rather than just float his name as a trial balloon and recoil at all the efforts to prick holes in it the message would be a strong one to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel Lobby that the old rules for the game are changing, that they can no longer blackball American public servants from key jobs in Washington.

Defecting on Iraq War

As a two-term senator, Chuck Hagel’s other real sin was that he was one of the few defectors among congressional Republicans regarding the Iraq War. Though Hagel voted for President George W. Bush’s war authorization, he eventually recognized his mistake and fessed up.

Hagel said he believes the Iraq War was one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history. He sharply criticized the Bush/Cheney foreign policy as “reckless,” saying it was playing “ping pong with American lives.” Such comments have made Hagel particularly unpopular with the top tier of hawkish Republican senators, such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona.

But Hagel’s ultimate offense, as far as Official Washington is concerned, is his unusual record of independent thinking that could, in Israel’s eyes, endanger or even derail business as usual with the U.S.  He is considered a realist, a pragmatist. Moreover, there can hardly be a more offensive remark to Israeli ears than the one made by Hagel to author Aaron Miller reflecting the sad state of affairs in Congress:

“The Jewish Lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” [on the Hill], but “I’m a United States Senator.  I’m not an Israeli senator.”

This remark, and others like it, have raised doubts in Israeli and pro-Israeli circles as to whether Hagel has the requisite degree of “passionate attachment” to Israel. This has generated a volley of vicious invective characterized so well by former Ambassador Chas Freeman in “Israel Lobby Takes Aim Again.” This invective is aimed at forcing Obama to drop any plan to put Hagel in charge of the Pentagon. After all, it takes courage to counter character assassination.

Why the Fear?

What really lies behind this? I suspect the fear is that, were Hagel to become Secretary of Defense, he would take a leaf out of his book as Senator and openly insist, in effect, that he is the American Secretary of Defense and not the Israeli Defense Minister.

This, in turn, gives rise to a huge question being whispered in more and more corridors of power in Washington: Is Israel an asset or a liability to the U.S., when looked at dispassionately in the perspective of our equities in the Middle East and our general strategic defense?

Hardly a new conundrum. Many decades ago, Albert Einstein, who feared the consequences of creating a “Jewish state” by displacing or offending Arabs, wrote:

“There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us [Jews] and the Arab people. Despite the great wrong that has been done us [in the western world], we must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people. Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.”

Realpolitik, including the increasing isolation of Israel and the U.S. in the Middle East, is breathing some life into this old attitude and generating consideration of a new approach necessity being the mother of invention.

Few have been as blunt, though, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has been described as the “unofficial dean of the realist school of American foreign policy experts.”  In a recent talk, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter minced no words:

“I don’t think there is an implicit obligation for the United States to follow like a stupid mule whatever the Israelis do. If they decide to start a war, simply on the assumption that we’ll automatically be drawn into it, I think it is the obligation of friendship to say, ‘you’re not going to be making national decisions for us.’ I think that the United States has the right to have its own national security policy.”

Even Petraeus Lets It Slip Out

Back when Gen. David Petraeus was head of CENTCOM, he addressed this issue, gingerly but clearly, in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010 on the “challenges to security and stability” faced by the U.S.:

“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests. … The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.

“Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships … in the area and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

Petraeus’s testimony provoked a sharp rejoinder from Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the leading American Zionist lobby groups. Foxman protested:

“Gen. Petraeus simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. … in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived favoritism for Israel.  This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive.”

Petraeus or someone on his staff had inadvertently touched a live-wire reality that is becoming increasingly debated in official circles but remains taboo when it comes to saying it out loud. Fearful that he would be dubbed an “anti-Semite,” Petraeus began a frantic attempt to take back the words, which he noted were only in his prepared testimony and were not repeated in his oral presentation. [See’s “Neocons, Likud Conquer DC, Again.”]

As Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada describes it, this taboo proscribes “stating publicly that U.S. ‘interests’ and Israeli ‘interests’ are not identical, and that Israel might be a strategic burden, rather than an asset to the United States.”

Ironically, while Foxman and hardline Zionists were objecting vociferously, Meir Dagan, then-Israel’s Mossad chief told a Knesset committee, “Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden.”

Taboo or not, an un-passionately-attached realist like Chuck Hagel presumably would be able to see that reality anathema in Zionist circles for what it is.

As prospective Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel would bring something else that would be extremely valuable to the job, a real-life understanding of the horrors of war. He volunteered for service in Vietnam in 1967 at the height of the fighting there, rejecting his local draft board’s suggestion that he re-enroll in college to avoid Vietnam. A combat infantry squad leader, he was twice wounded in that crucible. Do not let anyone tell you that this does not have a lasting effect on a man.

First in Three Decades

Were Hagel to become Secretary of Defense, he would become the first in 30 years to bring to the job direct battle experience of war. One must trace 14 former secretaries of defense all the way back to Melvin Laird (1969-1973) for one who has seen war up-close and personal.  (Like Hagel, Laird enlisted and eventually earned a Purple Heart as a seaman in the Pacific theater during WWII.)

Given this real world experience, the Israelis and their supporters in the U.S. might well conclude that Hagel would not be as blasé as his predecessors when it comes to sending troops off to war and even less so for a war like the prospective one with Iran.

Hagel’s past statements suggest he would urge more flexibility in talks with Iran on the nuclear issue and on Palestine, as well. This leaves him vulnerable to charges from the Israel Lobby, but even some pro-Israel stalwarts reject the far-fetched notion that this makes him “anti-Semitic.”

In comments to the New Yorker’s Connie Bruck, for example, Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-New York, has drawn a sensible contrast between Hagel’s apparent inclination toward more flexibility with Iran on the nuclear issue and the more familiar attitude which Ackerman described as: “You know ‘Let’s bomb them before the sun comes up.’”

If recent reports are correct in suggesting that Obama intends to enter more than just pro forma negotiations with Iran, he would have in Hagel the kind of ally he would need in top policy-making circles, someone who would support, not sabotage, chances for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Recall that in 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was able to put the kibosh on a plan that had been suggested by Obama himself, and carefully worked out with Tehran by the President of Brazil and the Prime Minister of Turkey, that would have been a major step toward resolving the dispute over Iran’s enrichment of uranium. [See’s “U.S./Israel Challenged on Iran.”]

Avoiding “Complicity”

The year just ending has been a rollercoaster for U.S.-Israeli relations. It started with Obama’s rather extreme professions of fealty to Israel. In a pre-Super Bowl interview with Matt Lauer on Feb. 5, the President said:

“My number one priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel, and we’re going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this problem [Iran], hopefully diplomatically.”

Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March amid suggestions that his devotion to Israel was still not enough Obama again used the first person in assuring the pro-Israel lobby group: “when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”

By late August, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was suggesting that Israel might ignore Obama’s sanctions strategy on Iran and launch a preemptive strike on its own, Obama used Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to say that he (Dempsey) did not wish to be “complicit,” if the Israelis chose to attack Iran. In September, Secretary Clinton was publicly brushing aside Netanyahu’s pleading for U. S. endorsement of his various “red lines,” and Obama was too busy to receive Netanyahu when he came to the U.N.

What lies in store for U.S.-Israeli relations in Obama’s second term? It is too early to tell. But whether or not the President decides to tough it out and nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is likely to provide a good clue.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  He served was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 30 years, and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.



18 comments for “The Larger Question of Chuck Hagel

  1. Karen Romero
    January 2, 2013 at 03:57

    This is probably one of the shortest comments I have ever typed.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no business involving himself in American politics. PERIOD!

    I like your new website Ray.

    Have a very happy and Blessed New Year.

  2. Franz Seiler
    December 29, 2012 at 21:58

    An important question put up in this essay is this:
    Paraphrase/quote: An asset or a liability?
    Whosoever tries to disregard what is required by logic, is a liability
    to himself, and to all the people he/she deals with.
    The text of the Kol Nidre does not comply with the requirements of
    logic. (The text has got the same deficiency as the ancient “A Cretan
    says: ‘All Cretans lie!'”) —– Applied to the Kol Nidre: If “all
    concepts, vows, and what is like them” are “invalid from the beginning”
    then also the text of the Kol Nidre which consists of such data.
    This means that all the people that (try to) follow the Kol Nidre are a
    liability to themselves, and to all the people they are dealing with…..
    (As far as I’m informed by way of internet etc.: “Following” the Kol
    Nidre is essential for people that mean to be Jews.)
    Best regards

  3. lexy677
    December 29, 2012 at 01:57

    Anyone who thinks or hopes that Obama will stand up to ANY opposition much less AIPAC’s must have been living under a rock the past four years. You can take it as a given that Obama will cave and fold like the abject coward he is and NOT nominate Hagel.

  4. elmerfudzie
    December 28, 2012 at 21:34

    Let’s cut the substance of this article down to the marrow and simply restate a long standing problem. Obama, much like his predecessors, would rather endear himself to his new world order lackeys rather than be a mans man, by simply issuing an Executive Order to the DOJ instructing them to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act with special emphasis on Zionist Organizations who intimidate or have inordinate influence over government officialdom inside the beltway.

  5. bobzz
    December 28, 2012 at 19:18

    I’d like to have the source on Einstein’s quote: “There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us [Jews] and the Arab people. Despite the great wrong that has been done us [in the western world], we must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people. … Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.” He surely proved to be right.

    • mhenriday
      December 29, 2012 at 15:44

      Bob, this seems to be a passage from a speech given by Einstein in 1939, according to Banesh Hoffmann. Einstein and Zionism, in G. Shaviv and J. Rosen (eds), General Relativity and Gravitation [New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1975], pp. 233-242, as cited on p 242. Alas, I do not have this work in my library, and so have been unable to check it….


      • bobzz
        January 1, 2013 at 00:18

        Thank you much. Sorry to be so late with the appreciation.

  6. John Van Doren
    December 28, 2012 at 17:37

    It seems to me important that Mr. Hagel be confirmed.

  7. John Van Doren
    December 28, 2012 at 17:35

    It seems to me important that Mr. Hagel be confoirmed.

  8. jean
    December 28, 2012 at 15:30

    Patrick Buchanan predates Hagel in his hostility to Israel. He was writing columns against Israel long before Netanyahu was Prime Minister.

    Two of his points show the depth of his hostility.

    1-Eisenhower forcing the Israelis to leave the Sinai- This forced withdrawal where the Israelis gave up the Sinai after Egypt had violated the armistice numerous times, in return for promises that were not kept (freedom of ship passage and UN demilitarized buffer zones) are the template for why the US insisted in 1967 that this not be repeated and instead there should be secure and recognized borders negotiated for Israel. Obviously Buchanan thinks Eisenhower’s action should be repeated.

    2- bisecting the West Bank with settlements- Here he is referring to the lie that E-1 will bisect the West Bank- Leaving the question of the wisdom of Israel’s wanting to connect Maleh Adumim the largest Israeli settlement of 40,000 people with the rest of Jerusalem, E1 does not bisect the West Bank. Looking at any map shows this is a lie. The New York Times admitted that when it wrote this it was not true and claimed it was an error. But Buchanan repeats it knowing it is not true.

    There are many reasons to oppose Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense besides Israel, Anti-Semitism and Iran.

    Thomas Friedman and Patrick Buchanon supporting Hagel are using magical fairy tale thinking not logic and facts. They believe Hagel will slay the evil ogre Netanyahu and then everyone will live happily ever after.

    if you believe that
    you can argue that singling out only Jews for exerting too much influence is not anti-semetic. You could argue that the US should accept an Iranian nuclear weapons program or even an Iranian ICBM program. You could argue that Israel should withdraw to the 1967 armistice lines from which it was attacked in return for nothing and still be pro-Israel.

    But to me he is the stereotypical Archie Bunker type bigot. His policies have been anti gay (even now after his late and self serving apology he doesn’t support equal benefits for gay military families. He is anti-African American (with a 17/100 rating from NAACP and admires Strom Thurmond as a great role model. anti Woman (vs choice and contraception)


    Hagel has drawn additional heat from insiders who claim he lacks the credentials needed to manage a department as large and essential as the Pentagon.

    “Yes, Hagel has crazy positions on several key issues. Yes, Hagel has said things that are borderline anti-Semitism. Yes, Hagel wants to gut the Pentagon’s budget. But above all, he’s not a nice person and he’s bad to his staff,” said a senior Republican Senate aide who has close ties to former Hagel staffers.

    “Hagel was known for turning over staff every few weeks—within a year’s time he could have an entirely new office because nobody wanted to work for him,” said the source. “You have to wonder how a man who couldn’t run a Senate office is going to be able to run an entire bureaucracy.”

    Others familiar with Hagel’s 12 year tenure in the Senate said he routinely intimidated staff and experienced frequent turnover.

    “Chuck Hagel may have been collegial to his Senate colleagues but he was the Cornhusker wears Prada to his staff, some of whom describe their former boss as perhaps the most paranoid and abusive in the Senate, one who would rifle through staffers desks and berate them for imagined disloyalty,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq. “He might get away with that when it comes to staffers in their 20s, but that sort of personality is going to go over like a ton of bricks at the Pentagon.”

    Multiple sources corroborated this view of Hagel.

    “As a manager, he was angry, accusatory, petulant,” said one source familiar with his work on Capitol Hill. “He couldn’t keep his staff.”

    “I remember him accusing one of his staffers of being ‘f—ing stupid’ to his face,” recalled the source

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 28, 2012 at 18:53

      OK. Let me see if I got this straight. You’re referring to illegal settlements in occupied territory, which is a violation of international law, and using the prima facie evidence of that international crime to bolster your argument that criticism of Israel is unwarranted? E-1, whether it bisects Palestine or not, constitutes occupation of territory garnered by aggressive war, which is an international crime. Anyone who criticizes Israeli policies politely based on principle is referred to as a “country club Antisemite”. Anyone who criticizes Israeli policies and points out historical facts is referred to as a “sophisticated Antisemite”. Anyone who happens to be Jewish and criticizes Israeli policies is labeled a “self-hating Jew”. These are all terms I have seen used at one time or another on this and other sites posted by commentators who seem to be referring to scripted dialogue. It is becoming common knowledge that there is a virtual army of pro-Israeli bloggers, trolls and propagandists who wage a war of obfuscation, distortion and historical omission to derail intelligent discussion of Middle-East politics. After watching a CNN panel of three know-nothing political commentators badmouth Hagel yesterday, obviously chosen for their potential to appeal on the basis of cultural diversity, it is obvious that the American public will not be permitted to learn of the skulduggery behind the smearing of this potential nominee. I suspect that the Israel lobby will succeed in getting a nominee to their liking. Sooner or later, given enough rope…how does the saying go?

      • Coleen Rowley
        December 29, 2012 at 13:22

        Let me add that the political selling ploy that obviously accompanies the promotion of Michele Flournoy over Hagel effectively serves to dupe the “feminist” contingent. The neo-cons are not dummies when it comes to using such identity politics and blind loyalty psychology to get their way on war. The last three Secretaries of State (and their wanna-bes) who have risen to become the most powerful females thus far in US history, the “first black President” and now even using the “gays” (against Hagel) are all examples. As is the first female to win the Academy Award for Best Director, the beautiful Kathryn Bigelow being used by the Military Industrial Congressional Media Hollywood Complex to sell war and torture. Figurehead members of gender, race (and probably eventually sexual identification) “minorities” are being exploited to effectively sell US-NATO-Israel’s permanent wars of aggression, killing and quest for “full spectrum dominance” to the “progressives.”

        Just what the CIA “Red Cell” psych-ops people figured out some time ago to keep the war machine going.

        The perfect, kinder-gentler accompaniment to the new McCarthyism!

        See and

        • F. G. Sanford
          December 29, 2012 at 19:08

          What we are witnessing has been called the “weaponization of Anthropology” by one notable social scientist. These strategies are not random experiments, but carefully contrived, thoughtfully orchestrated tactics. Some time ago, I was invited to participate in a survey designed to determine the general awareness of “psy-ops” techniques and level of confidence in their effectiveness among military service members. I commented that, due to my academic background, I was probably more aware than most, and I regarded the techniques as probably more effective against the domestic populace than the enemy. After all, the enemy already knows what kind of lies we tell. Back at home, the public at large is at the mercy of “spin”. Looks like they took my advice. It’s sadly all very Machiavellian, especially when one realizes that his colleagues, who should know better, have sold out and betrayed the more humane aspirations of their chosen fields.

        • charles sereno
          January 1, 2013 at 18:33

          Consider this flattery if you will (I don’t). Your directness, logic, and conciseness is truly admirable.

          • charles sereno
            January 1, 2013 at 18:36

            I was directing my comment to Colleen, not Sanford. He’s pretty good too!

        • elmerfudzie
          January 4, 2013 at 20:29

          Once again Coleen, excellent! Nothing like pinning the donkey!

    • lexy677
      December 29, 2012 at 02:04

      Oh please!! Eisenhower WAS NOT JEWISH. Whats wrong with you people. Everyone with a German sounding name in America must be Jewish??? Good grief!!!

    • Judgment
      January 2, 2013 at 01:20

      Actually there is one simple and direct reason to support Hegel. His mind, passion for Israel or whatever is not his primary role, the exposure of the USA people to a wars they can do without is the issue. In the dangerous world of foreign intrigue, as the Founder recognized, the kind of commitment demanded by Israel needs a very specific explanation to the National Interest and the people. After all, pledging the “life,wealth, and sacred Honor of his nation to defend a potentially allied foreign nation in need, required a clear definition and limitation of “defend from UNPROVOKED attack, and defense from attack resulting from that Nation own aggressive behaviour” No sane leader, unless a traitor married to the best interest of a foreign nation ahead of the interest of the people he is supposed to protect ad serve, would expose his people to dangers with out a vital reason to THIS nation. Hegel will think of the consequences to the USA and its PEOPLE before making such decision, and that is as it should be and AFTER YEARS OF SPECIAL INTERETS FOREING AND DOMESTIC we need such MINDS ans HEART and HONOR in that position and We hope Kerry will do the same.

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