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Did Hagel Backtrack on Iran?

Though many friends of Israel are dismayed at the prospect of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel being the next secretary of defense, an effort is underway to portray the longtime critic of the Jewish state as having shifted his position, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat. Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman told the Times of Israel today he thinks a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by Hagel back in September shows that the former senator “is now in sync with the president’s position on Iran.”

But a close look at the piece published on September 28 and signed by Hagel, retired admiral William J. Fallon, Lee Hamilton and former Marine general Anthony Zinni, should give those counting on the administration doing what is necessary to stop Tehran little comfort. Though it pays lip service to the idea that force should be contemplated if all other attempts to persuade Iran to stand down fail, the main thrust of the article is to oppose any idea of military action. If this is indeed proof that Hagel and the president are on the same page on Iran, it makes it very likely that a second Obama administration with Hagel at the Pentagon is unlikely to scare the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions.

Hagel’s reputation as a critic of the U.S.-Israel alliance is well deserved. As Rick, Alana and the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens noted earlier today, his history of quotes raising dual loyalty charges against supporters of Israel, his equivocal positions on Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists as well as his open opposition to a tough stand on Iran ought to take him out of the running for any position of influence in an administration that calls itself “pro-Israel.”

It may be that Hagel will be prepared to mouth platitudes about Israel in his confirmation hearings as part of what Foxman calls a “pragmatic change” in order to gain a place at the Cabinet table. But the significance of the positions he has taken on Iran makes his presence at the Pentagon a particular problem. To assert, as Foxman does, that Hagel would be obligated to obey Obama’s orders misses the point. If there is anything that we have learned about the president’s governing style in his first four years in office it is that he is not likely to appoint anyone to a crucial post that is likely to differ from his views on important issues. Putting Hagel in charge of the defense establishment is a clear signal that the president has no interest in ever coming to grips with the Iranian threat.

Foxman’s unwillingness to take a stand on Hagel’s appointment is troubling. The ADL chief has been a stern critic of the infamous Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that sought to demonize Jews and others who support the Jewish state. While Hagel has not gone quite as far as those two academics and their supporters, he has engaged in loose talk about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating critics and has publicly postured about being an American senator rather than an Israeli one–a not-so-subtle attempt to raise the dual loyalty canard against Jews.

Yet Foxman won’t join those protesting Hagel’s 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.”

In backing down on Hagel, Foxman is perhaps telling us that he thinks any attempt to derail the nomination would be futile. Given the unwillingness of Republican leaders such as John McCain to stop a former colleague the way they did Susan Rice’s hopes for the State Department, he’s probably right about that, but that doesn’t make this cynical calculation on the part of the ADL chief right.

But the bottom line here is not so much about Hagel as it is about Obama. Putting a man with his views about Israel and its enemies in charge at the Pentagon gives the lie to the election-year Jewish charm offensive that helped the president win re-election. The sounds of celebrating among Israel’s American foes as well as in Tehran makes it clear that any idea that this president will go to the mat on Iran was wishful thinking on the part of Jewish Democrats.



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