Commentary Magazine


The Hagel Insult

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens writes that Chuck Hagel has a “Jewish problem”–reflected in the “especially ripe” odor of prejudice evidenced in his past comments. Stephens shows that Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense would confirm that Obama “is not a friend of Israel,” and would be an insult to the Jewish Americans who voted in lopsided numbers for Obama.

Actually, it would be much worse than that.

On November 29, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Israel. In the hearing, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute observed that the perceived gap between the U.S. and Israel has broader strategic consequences:

[O]ne of the most interesting things that you hear from Gulf leaders is their shock at the gap that had opened up between Israel and the United States over recent years. They view that as a barometer of American friendship and loyalty. If you won’t stand by Israel, how can we trust you to stand by us against Iran? And the answer is, of course, that they don’t.

 Later in the hearing, Pletka expanded on her point:

I think this is really a larger problem … It’s not just where we stand on the question of Israel. It’s where we stand in the Middle East. It’s where we stand on the question of Iran. Are we going to negotiate with Iran and allow them to have a nuclear capability, because I can tell you that that’s what they think and that’s what our allies think.

Hagel’s nomination would be a twofer: a signal that Obama (a) plans to negotiate an Iranian nuclear capability, and (b) is unconcerned about any resulting gap with Israel. You don’t nominate a person to head the American military who is admittedly still haunted by Vietnam and known for his opposition to the Iraq War (and to the surge that won it), his antagonism to Israel, his willingness to talk with Hamas, etc., without realizing the signal it sends. Nominating a John McCain or Joe Lieberman would signal that time is running out and other options are being considered. With Hagel, the signal is that the President’s last election is over and he is ready to be more flexible.

Gary Schmitt of AEI was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying Obama and Hagel “share a larger strategic view, which is draw down in Europe, disengage from the Middle East and accept we are going to have a much smaller military.” Given that view, the administration’s “pivot” to Asia seems less like a strategy than a search for something to do after American power is withdrawn elsewhere. In that connection, the point Pletka made immediately after the one above is worth noting as well:

You know, if we are adrift as a nation in shaping our foreign policy and unsure of whether we wish to lead the world or we wish to just sort of play along with the world, then we’re going to have these problems in more places than just the Middle East.

The Hagel nomination would be what Obama likes to call a “defining moment.” It would be a signal–to allies and adversaries alike–of something much larger, and much more unfortunate, than the calculated insult that will accompany it.