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AIPAC’s Hagel Dilemma

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg homed in on an interesting aspect of the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense this morning when he noted how the issue put AIPAC in a tough position. There’s little question that the pro-Israel lobby is alarmed by the prospect of having a man running the Pentagon who thinks the U.S. ought to be tough on Israel and soft on Iran rather than the other way around. But, as Goldberg rightly pointed out, AIPAC is in the business of working with Congress and the White House, not fighting them tooth and nail.

Goldberg correctly notes that it would be bad judgment for a group that applauded Obama’s promises on Iran to attempt to thwart him on his choice to head the Defense Department. While Obama’s support for positions on Iran and Israel in the past year and a half have often seemed grudging, AIPAC is eager to maintain decent relations with the White House. That would, as Goldberg seems to imply, argue for the lobby to stand aside during the upcoming donnybrook over Hagel. But the problem with this reasoning is that it ignores what is fairly obvious to both friends and foes of the nominee: his appointment signals that the administration’s election year Jewish charm offensive during which the president stopped picking fights with Israel and pledged not to contain Iran, but to stop the Islamic Republic, is very much over.

The last thing AIPAC wants to do is to fight a losing battle over Hagel in which it would get the worst of both worlds—a bad appointment and a White House that will be interested in payback for being thwarted. But the stakes are sufficiently high that it ought not be too difficult a decision. If there is any chance that the nomination can be defeated—and if reports about pro-Israel Democrats being willing to jump ship on this issue are true, he can be —then those who wish to send the administration a message that the country will not tolerate Obama breaking his promises on Iran must do whatever they can to accomplish this goal.

The White House is, as Goldberg notes, sending a loud message to AIPAC that the president will be offended if they fight him on Hagel. The presumption is that any such decision would have a negative impact on Obama’s continuation of policies that the lobby supports on security cooperation with Israel.

Yet by picking Hagel for defense, what Obama has done is to signal Israel’s friends that any expectation that he would stick to his word about containment or the use of force against Iran is probably unrealistic. That’s what the Iranians and Israelis are probably thinking right now, a state of affairs that is likely to lead to trouble for the U.S. Though it would be wrong to think that AIPAC has nothing to lose in this battle, the consequences of allowing Hagel to skate through to an easy confirmation are immense for the group and the U.S.-Israel alliance. That’s especially true if a strong push from AIPAC might be enough to nudge a critical group of pro-Israel Democratic senators to commit to vote against him.

There are times when groups like AIPAC must play it smart and avoid confrontations with the president. This isn’t one of them. By speaking out forcefully, the group can transform the Hagel issue from what is being spun in the media as GOP revenge for his opposition to the Iraq War into a bipartisan revolt against his nomination. That’s exactly what they should do.