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.
One is that the administration knows that the real Chuck Hagel who was well known to be hostile to the pro-Israel community and was an advocate of engagement with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah can’t be confirmed as secretary of defense. If they are to sell the Senate on their former colleague, it will require a complete rebranding in which the Nebraskan throws his “realist” foreign policy views, which endeared him to Israel-bashers and caused even the Iranians to embrace his nomination, out the window.
That means the campaign launched against his confirmation by those who rightly viewed him as a figure outside the mainstream when it came to many foreign policy issues is succeeding. Hagel’s cheering section in the media and the Washington establishment has sought to put down his opponents as mad dog neoconservatives and extremists. But the former senator’s willingness to abandon his views shows that his White House handlers understand that it was Hagel that was out of touch, not his critics.
Secondly, the process by which Hagel has been forced to do a 180 on stands that were integral to his worldview also illustrates that President Obama is not as free to pursue policies in his second term that contradict the rhetoric he used during his re-election campaign as some of his left-wing supporters hoped and his right-wing foes feared.
The president painted himself into a corner last year when he specifically disavowed the possibility that the U.S. might choose to “contain” a nuclear Iran rather than forestalling the Islamist regime’s production of such weapons. He also vowed that any deal with Iran would preclude their having a nuclear program. And though he spent much of his first term seeking to undermine Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and trying to force it to make concessions, the president stopped talking about those issues last year and merely stuck, as Hagel did in his letter to Boxer, to enunciating support for the U.S.-Israel alliance.
This doesn’t mean that the second Obama administration can’t reverse itself on any of these points. It could back down on Iran and it is not unlikely that it will embrace a revived peace process aimed at pushing Israel into a corner. But the Hagel confirmation process shows that making such decisions will come at a high political price. There’s good reason to believe that Hagel was chosen precisely because the president privately shares some of those views that the nominee is now disavowing. But this is also a president who understands that his political capital is finite and can’t be squandered on anti-Israel grudges when there are much larger and more important battles to be fought in the next four years. The campaign against Hagel may not succeed in stopping his confirmation. But by forcing him to start talking like a neoconservative on Israel, it has demonstrated that there is a limit to how far even a re-elected Obama can go when it comes to straying from the foreign policy mainstream.
Reports now say that New York Senator Chuck Schumer is satisfied with Hagel’s backtracking on Israel and Iran and is now prepared to endorse his nomination. This makes it a certainty that Hagel will be confirmed. But as I wrote earlier, the fact that he was forced to do a 180 on the positions that had endeared him to the foes of the Jewish state will make it difficult for Hagel to revert to his previous antagonism toward the pro-Israel community.