A lot of the drama was taken out of the battle to confirm Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense today when New York Senator Chuck Schumer endorsed the nomination. Schumer said he had made the decision after a long conversation with his former Senate colleague in which he was, he said, reassured that the new Pentagon chief had changed his mind about the relationship between Israel and the United States as well as his previous views about Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Schumer directly addressed the concerns that members of the pro-Israel community have expressed about Hagel’s sudden change of heart by saying this:
“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post,” Mr. Schumer said. “But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago.”
Such faith in Hagel’s conversion from a politician who bragged about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and an opponent of sanctions against Iran as well as an advocate of engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah is remarkable. How is it possible that in the space of only a few months that Hagel could have had such a dramatic change of heart? Given Hagel’s disdain for the current government of Israel and the fact that only last fall he was signing letters expressing opposition to any mention of the use of force against Iran, only the most cynical of partisans could believe for a minute that the Nebraskan’s new positions are a sincere expression of his actual opinions. While Schumer, a powerful senator who has no fear about possible challenges to his seat, may think his seal of approval of Hagel will have no consequences, it is the sort of thing that, at the least, ought to raise the question of what it actually means to be a pro-Israel Democrat these days.
There’s no doubt Senator Chuck Schumer’s endorsement of Obama’s defense secretary nominee gave a boost to Chuck Hagel. But it’s premature to claim Hagel is now headed for a certain victory. First, while Schumer makes it easier for pro-Israel Democrats to support Hagel, he is not the final word in Democratic opposition. Others will still need persuading, and some say Schumer’s 90-minute about-face wasn’t exactly convincing.
“I have a difficult time believing that Democrats will be able to follow Chuck Schumer’s lead of saying that they were reassured on issues as wide-ranging as his ability to implement the Commander-in-Chief’s ordered dismantling of [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell], all the way to his misjudgment on engaging Iran and Syria, all the way through his decades-long denigration of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship — all in 90 minutes,” a senior official at a Washington D.C. Jewish organization said. “By setting the bar so high, Schumer may actually have made it difficult for Democrats to find excuses to discover their support for Hagel.”
Better late than never is the only way one can describe the New York Times’s decision to run an article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s history of anti-Semitic slanders. As we wrote here on Contentions two weeks ago, a video of an Egyptian TV interview with the Muslim Brotherhood leader from 2010 has surfaced in which he describes Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of the United States. As I noted at the time, revelations about the nature of what passes for rhetoric about Israel and the Jews might come as a shock to readers of the Times–since much of their news coverage, as well as the work of op-ed columnists like Nicholas Kristof, had sought to portray the Brotherhood as moderate and friendly people who just happen to be Muslims–but not to those who have been following these developments without the rose-colored glasses that liberals seem to require to discuss the Arab world. The conceit of the piece about Morsi’s comment is, however, to call attention to the difficult position the Egyptian president has been placed in by reports about his despicable language.
Egyptian figures quoted by the Times get the last word here, as they seem to argue that it isn’t reasonable to expect Morsi to apologize since to do so leaves him vulnerable to criticism from his Islamist supporters and their allies who like that kind of talk. The conclusion seems to be that Americans should judge Morsi only by his recent behavior that has been aimed at least partly at ensuring that the flow of billions of dollars of U.S. aid should continue.
The problem is that Morsi’s use of a phrase that is commonly employed throughout the Muslim world to describe Jews as well as other comments that are straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is so common in Egypt as to make it almost unexceptionable. That is no small measure the result of Brotherhood propaganda and mainstream Islamist thought in which demonization of Israelis, Jews and Americans is commonplace. Try as writers like Kristof might to paint the Brotherhood as a responsible political movement, Jew-hatred is one of its core beliefs. The question here is not so much whether Morsi will publicly disavow these slurs but whether the Obama administration will continue to buy into the myth that Morsi is some kind of a moderate whose government deserves to continue to be treated as an ally.
At his press conference yesterday:
The president demanded that the Republicans surrender their most powerful bargaining chip—the debt ceiling—first and then “I’m happy to have a conversation about deficit reduction.” Translation: Give me everything I want first and then we’ll talk.
He threatened that “If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks, and veterans benefits will be delayed.” Translation: I’ll choose not to pay the bills that will cause maximum political blow-back and the mainstream media will see to it that the Republicans bear all the blame.
The headline writers at Bloomberg knew exactly which part of Jeffrey Goldberg’s column would prove juiciest to those perusing the web today: “Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are’”. The quote from the president will bother Israel’s defenders for the same reason Obama is usually able to push their buttons: Obama’s lack of knowledge about Jewish history, his decision to take potshots at the Likud party as a way to win over those hostile to the Jewish state during the 2008 election, and his refusal to learn basic facts about issues before throwing temper tantrums about them make him among the least credible public officials on the issue of what is in Israel’s best interests.
Goldberg’s access to Obama’s inner circle has made him an excellent source on the Obama administration’s perspective on Israel, though stories like this don’t exactly paint the president in a particularly positive light–especially the president’s belief that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “coward.” But childish name-calling aside, the president, according to the column, seems to have given up on Netanyahu. He can’t muster outrage at Israeli actions that elicit rage from leftist activists and cartoonishly biased and inaccurate “news” stories. (The New York Times deserves special mention here for publishing an article on the E-1 corridor around Jerusalem and then publishing a “correction” noting that the entire premise of the article was wrong, having since consulted a map.) But the president seems unwilling to admit how he has contributed to the situation that upsets him so.
Harry Reid tried his best to undermine any assault weapons ban proposal before it saw the light of day, but the Washington Post reports that President Obama is going ahead with it. The president will release his proposals for comprehensive gun control tomorrow, including as many as 19 executive orders:
President Obama will unveil a sweeping set of gun-control proposals at midday Wednesday, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and limits on the number of bullets magazines can hold, according to sources familiar with the plans.
The announcement, to be delivered at the White House, is also expected to include a slate of up to 19 executive actions that the Obama administration can take on its own to attempt to limit gun violence. The White House has invited key lawmakers as well as gun-control advocates to appear at Wednesday’s policy rollout, according to two officials who have been invited to the event.
The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.
That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.
In October 2008, in a highly publicized and eagerly anticipated vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Biden said something that would have been notable were it not for his reputation for bluster and braggadocio. When moderator Gwen Ifill asked the candidates about the job description and value of the vice presidency of the United States, Biden said this:
With regard to the role of vice president, I had a long talk, as I’m sure the governor did with her principal, in my case with Barack. Let me tell you what Barack asked me to do. I have a history of getting things done in the United States Senate. John McCain would acknowledge that. My record shows that on controversial issues. I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration. I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was, no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he’ll be making, I’ll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He’s president, not me, I’ll give my best advice.
Contrary to the Walt-and-Mearsheimer fantasy that there’s some all-powerful “Israeli lobby” pulling puppet strings behind the scenes, Senator Chuck Schumer always had much more of a political incentive to support the administration’s nominee. The only surprise here is how early Schumer caved on Hagel–why not wait until the confirmation hearings started? It sounds like the administration must have made him a pretty persuasive offer:
After a 90-minute meeting in the West Wing of the White House on Monday, Mr. Schumer appeared to be mollified on a number of concerns he has with some votes Mr. Hagel made while serving in the Senate and myriad comments he has subsequently made regarding the nuclear threat of Iran and other matters.
“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement, “I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.” Mr. Schumer is likely to have influence over many of his Senate colleagues, particularly Democrats, who have been fretting over the nomination. He called Mr. Hagel Tuesday morning to let him know he was prepared to support him.
Earlier this month, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian penned an op-ed in the New York Times offering advice about how to negotiate with Iranians. The piece was full of the usual sophistry, but one sentence caught my eye: “Following the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, the Swiss ambassador to Iran reached out to Washington with an unofficial outline for a ‘grand bargain’ with Tehran that would cover everything from Iran’s nuclear program to its support for militant groups in the region.”
Mousavian chooses his words carefully: He is careful not to say what partisan American pundits like Nicholas Kristof or agenda-driven former journalists like Barbara Slavin so often declare: That the United States had dismissed an Iranian “grand bargain” offer.
COMMENTARY readers may be interested in my new book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which has just come out in both hardcover and e-book editions.
I am honored and delighted to see that it is getting strong notices. Walter Isaacson calls “it a wonderful and readable historic narrative filled with colorful characters.” General Jack Keane calls it “the most definitive and comprehensive work to date on the dominant form of warfare of our times.” And from The Daily Beast: “The word ‘magisterial’ is bandied about far too freely these days, but in the case of Max Boot’s sweeping and deeply researched history of guerrilla warfare, it proves fair.”
Here’s an interview with Time Magazine that I did about the book and here is a radio interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. More information (including a calendar of my scheduled book talks in Washington, New York, and elsewhere) is available at my website: www.maxboot.net. I hope you’ll check it out.
How badly does Chuck Hagel want to be secretary of defense? As Politico reports, the answer comes in a letter he wrote to Senator Barbara Boxer that won the California Democrat’s support for his confirmation. In it, he didn’t merely apologize for his bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby,” but also backtracked from previous stands on the U.S.-Israel alliance, the threat from Iran and even specified that he now considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups.
As expected, Hagel flipped on his anti-gay stance as well as his opposition to abortion rights for members of the armed services—issues that are important to the liberal Boxer. But by explicitly reversing his positions on Middle East issues that he had held throughout his years in the Senate and after he left Congress, Hagel has made it clear that he is willing to say anything necessary to win the approval of pro-Israel Democrats without whom he cannot win confirmation. The man who once popped off about how he was not like all the members of the Senate when it came to embracing the pro-Israel and anti-Iran consensus now can’t be loud enough in his professions of support for that line.
This tells us two things.