Pro-Israel Democrats are in a difficult spot this morning as President Obama prepares to nominate one of the least friendly members of the United States Senate in the last generation to the post of secretary of defense. Hagel’s comments about his antagonism toward the “Jewish lobby,” his votes against sanctions on Iran and Syria and his refusal to condemn anti-Semitism are a matter of record and make difficult reading for those who spent the last year working hard to persuade pro-Israel and Jewish voters that President Obama could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel and to take action on the Iranian nuclear threat. At the very least, Hagel’s nomination complicates the narrative in which administration supporters claimed the president was prepared to go to the mat to stop Iran.
That’s why many Democrats as well as Republicans are casting doubt on the ability of the White House to ensure his confirmation. But some resourceful souls have been floating a counter-intuitive argument in order to smooth the way for what looks to be brutal fight in the Senate. According to this scenario, appointing Hagel actually is a signal that Obama is serious about taking on Iran. Choosing an open opponent of not only the use of force against Iran but also sanctions would, we are told, give the president cover when he is ready to go to war on Iran and silence any criticism from the left while also showing the world that America is united behind the president’s policies.
While those attempting to put forward such an idea deserve credit for both chutzpah and creativity, this is utter nonsense. It flies against not only logic but also everything we know about how the president operates. Far from providing a warning to Iran that America is prepared to take action against them, it is a neon sign proclaiming that, at best, the cabinet will be divided on what to do after the next round of no-hope negotiations fail. At worst, it will make it obvious what many have already long suspected: that President Obama has no intention of keeping his promise to stop Iran and to not consider containment as a viable option.
For all of the talk about the Hagel nomination being evidence of bipartisanship, it is actually yet another example of the main theme of the Obama presidency. Though nominally a Republican, this is, after all, a Republican who endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 as well as 2012 and has few ties left with the party that elected him to the Senate. More to the point, for good or for ill, this has been an administration in which open conflicts between cabinet secretaries has been rare. Far from encouraging independent thinking or diverse agendas, the White House has maintained a united front on big issues. So the notion that Obama is appointing someone to be the top defense and security official in the nation who has a markedly different view on Iran from his own core beliefs seems a stretch at best.
As for the idea that Obama is worried about criticism from the left should he decide to strike Iran, that is also ridiculous. As much as many liberals have expressed frustration with what they think is his weak stance toward the Republicans (at least they did before he hosed them in the fiscal cliff talks) and grumbled quietly about counter-terror policies that bear a striking resemblance to those of George W. Bush that he campaigned against, the left has done nothing to hinder this president. Should he decide on action against Iran, only the hard left would oppose him. Chuck Hagel neither enhances nor detracts from his ability to rally the nation behind any aggressive policy aimed at forestalling the Iranian threat.
The truth is far more obvious. President Obama is choosing Hagel not because he provides a dissenting view on Iran or Israel but because his views are entirely compatible with those of his future boss. The appointment is a signal to Iran that there is a senior U.S. cabinet secretary that isn’t interested in opposing them and to Israel that they may well be on their own.
That’s a tough pill for Obama’s pro-Israel supporters to swallow, but it is far closer to the truth than any scenario in which Hagel’s elevation is spun as anything but what it is: an indication of the president’s inconstancy on both Israel and Iran.