President Obama's nomination of Republican Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense could mark a significant shift in the US administration's stance towards Israel and the Middle East in general. Hagel, an old school realist Republican has staked out a solidly moderate stance towards Israel - a major no no in the current ideological paradigm in America where the Jewish state can do no wrong and Iran/Hamas can never be negotiated with. Hagel's major sins are that he dared to suggest that the Israel lobby 'intimidates a lot of people' on Capitol Hill, has vocally opposed bombing Iran, and believes in dialogue with Hamas and the Iranian government.
In response his nomination, both pro Israel Democrats and Republicans are up in arms suggesting Hagel is an enemy of Israel and even an anti semite. Senator Lindsey Graham stated that Hagel is “very antagonistic toward the state of Israel”, and Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League said that Hagel’s comments on the pro-Israel lobby “border on anti-Semitism”. There has been significant noise from the Left in regards to comments Hagel made when he voted against James Hormel as Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1998 on the ground that Hormel was "openly, aggressively gay". (Hagel has since apologized for his comments and pledged support for the LGBT community). Liberals are also attacking Hagel's nomination on the grounds that a Democrat is more than capable of acting as Secretary of Defense.
The criticisms from both sides are, in the scheme of things, completely irrelevant and counterproductive, particularly if the public wants a more sensible and less destructive foreign policy going forward.
Firstly, the criticisms from the Left are meaningless. Hagel's views on homosexuality are hardly controversial in Washington (and are in line with the President's). It should be remembered that the gay community had no problem getting behind Obama when he wasn't for gay marriage. The notion that a Democrat should get the nomination just because they are Democrat also makes no sense. Hagel is far better on foreign policy than most mainstream Democrats. Who cares what his other political beliefs are? He's being nominated to do a foreign policy job, not a domestic one.
Also, if you look at his actual record, Hagel exemplifies mainstream public opinion on foreign policy; that the crisis in the middle east should be treated in a more balanced manner, and that America should talk to its allies. As Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of pro-Israel liberal J Street, said: “The notion that Chuck Hagel is anti-Israel is ludicrous. The notion that he is anti-Semitic is slanderous."
Steve Clemons at the Atlantic has a thorough run down of the charges leveled against Hagel, and sourcing Israelis who actually worked with Hagel when he was at the USO (United Service Operations) concludes that despite his criticisms, he has in fact been very supportive of the state.
Hagel is certainly no liberal - he voted for the Iraq war before opposing it, defended the National Security Act and helped the Bush administration avoid a big congressional inquiry into their warrantless surveillance efforts.
What Hagel is not though, is a 'yes man'. He has a history of vociferously opposing his party on foreign policy issues, specifically the Iraq war where he lambasted the Bush Administration on every level during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in 2007. "This is one of the most arrogant, incompetent administrations I've ever seen personally or ever read about," said Hagel. "This administration in my opinion has been as unprepared as any administration I'm aware of. Not only the ones that I have been somehow connected to and that's been every administration - either I've been in Washington or worked within an administration or Congress or some way dealing with them since the first Nixon administration. I would rate this one the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus - almost every area, I would give it the lowest grade"
Given there are virtually no differences between the Democrats and Republicans when it comes to official foreign policy (remember the nauseating third Presidential debate where Obama and Romney agreed on pretty much everything?), Hagel is something of a renegade here, and probably lies where Obama secretly is. As Glenn Greenwald notes:
There's a reason Hagel's nomination has become so intensely controversial and such a vicious target for war-cheering neocons such as Bill Kristol and the Washington Post Editorial Board. It's because Hagel is one of the very, very few prominent national politicians from either party who has been brave enough to question and dissent from the destructive bipartisan orthodoxies on foreign policy. What plausible Democratic candidate for this job has been willing publicly to point out that the US and Israel are separate countries and American interests should trump Israeli interests when they conflict, or to advocate for direct negotiations with Hamas, or to candidly point out that America's Middle East wars are fought for oil, or to condemn the power of the pro-Israel lobby within both parties, or to harshly point out the stupidity of attacking Iran rather than cowardly mouth the "all-options-on-the-table" platitude?
The President is in between a rock and a hard place when it comes to shifting on foreign policy. There is a good argument to be made that it has been politically impossible for him to make drastic changes when it comes to America's position on Israel, Palestine and Iran. Of course he could have done better, but given the amount of abuse hurled at him from the Republicans during his first four years on everything from his birth place to his religion, Obama has had to out hawk the hawks when it comes to dealing with America's official enemies.
But no more.
Obama has won his second term and does not need to think about re-election in 2016. This means he has, at least in theory, some wiggle room to make a dent in America's foreign policy trajectory and shift it towards a more realist (and some might say, conservative) pathway. Electing Chuck Hagel is an effective way of setting out on the right course. Hagel is white, Republican, and most importantly, a Vietnam vet. His credentials and profile make him very difficult to attack from the Right, and while many are trying, there is only so far they can go without repercussion. Hagel will provide some cover for Obama when it comes to dealing with Israel, and talking with Iran and Hamas. Hagel can make deals and voice criticism that Obama cannot. His nomination also sends a strong message to Benjamin Netanyahu that the administration will no longer tolerate his obnoxious and disrespectful behavior, and it will signify to Iran and Hamas that the US is ready to negotiate.
The changes won't be immediately drastic or meaningful in the short term as Hagel will likely (at least overtly) conform to the Washington consensus. He'll make the obligatory platitudes to Israel and condemn Iran and Hamas, but behind the scenes he will work to rid Washington of the insidious neo-con influence that has infected US foreign policy for far too long, and pull the US back to a more flexible and less ideological stance towards the Middle East.
Obama's pick is an incredibly intelligent move that could reap serious reward down the line. Hagel is Obama's Trojan horse - the only politician capable of changing the terms of debate on Israel and the Middle East from the inside. And that should never, ever be underestimated.