If there is any message to come out of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, perhaps it is a refutation of the commonly heard charge, made most infamously by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and echoed by Hagel himself, that the dread “Jewish lobby” insidiously controls American foreign policy. How strong can this lobby be if it failed to block the appointment as defense secretary of someone who was widely seen (rightly or wrongly) as inimical to Israeli interests?
As Lee Smith notes in a typically thoughtful column, AIPAC–the most powerful pro-Israel group in Washington–actually sat out the whole fight ostensibly because it wants to affect policy, not personnel decisions. But it’s also possible that it sat out the fight because it knew that it would lose; indeed after Chuck Schumer gave his blessing to Hagel, there was no realistic chance of stopping his nomination absent a unified Republican filibuster–which was never likely to last for more than a few days. And certainly other pro-Israel groups, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, did go all-out to try to stop Hagel.
Pro-Israel groups have failed not only on this front, but on others. They have hardly been able to dictate American policy even on their (and Israel’s) top issue: the Iranian nuclear program. True, Congress has passed and President Obama has reluctantly signed tough sanctions. But just last week the U.S. and other Western states were negotiating with the Iranians in Kazakhstan and even offering concessions to coax them into a deal.
This is a far cry from what Israel–and for that matter America’s Gulf Arab allies–would like to see, which is American air strikes to cripple the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, given the pace at which Iran continues to advance its nuclear designs, it seems likely that only such military action can stop it from acquiring the bomb. But the odds of such strikes under an Obama administration were close to nil even before Hagel took over Defense; they are even lower today. Of course the Iranian mullahs know this, and it will only feed their intransigence.
There are, to be sure, valid arguments for not bombing the Iranian nuclear program. But suffice it to say that if the “Zionist Lobby” actually ran American foreign policy–as so many seem to imagine–it is puzzling why such strikes have not yet been undertaken. Or why in 2007 the Bush administration refused to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor, as advocated by Vice President Dick Cheney, leaving that task to the Israeli Air Force. By contrast the U.S. did go to war in the last decade in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and to a lesser extent (via drone strikes) in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. While Israel was not opposed to any of those interventions, it was not particularly in favor of any of them either. It would take an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist of great imagination to come up with any plausible Israeli role in any of these military actions.
There are, of course, numerous other instances of U.S. policymakers acting in ways opposed by pro-Israel advocates–from the days when the George H.W. Bush administration was pressuring Israel over settlements (remember Jim Baker telling Israel’s government: “Everybody over there should know that the telephone number [of the White House] is 1-202-456-1414. When you’re serious about peace, call us”), to the Obama administration doing the same.
The notion that the Jews–or, as they are more politely described, “pro-Israel lobbyists” or “Zionists”–are in control of U.S. foreign policy has always been a fantasy, of course, and a particularly malign one. Like most such conspiracy theories it is impossible to refute, so no doubt the Mearsheimers and Walts of the world will find some convoluted explanation of why “The Lobby” is actually getting what it wants even when it is plainly not achieving its goals, such as stopping Hagel’s confirmation. Whatever they come up with, it should be good.