It is looking more and more certain that former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel is going to be the next American Secretary of Defense. President Obama has officially announced his intention to nominate Mr. Hagel. Considering precedent, whereby very few nominated cabinet members who were formerly members of the Senate had been rejected by that body, there is little reason to believe that the Hagel nomination will not pass muster.
Ever since word got out that the president was intending to appoint Hagel, a lot of newspaper and online space, together with TV airtime, have been devoted to critiques of him, particularly regarding his views on Israel and Iran-related matters.
Now that it looks as if his appointment is going forward, it is reasonable to consider what the consequences for Israel may be with a Pentagon led by Hagel.
First, we need to recognize that not every decision that President Obama makes is directed at or against Israel. Many decisions made in Washington relating to defense and/or security matters are primarily based on broad-based U.S. defense and security needs and only incidentally on Israel. We need to view it in that perspective and not read into it too much about intentions toward Israel. Such may be the case here.
Let’s begin with a broad consensus on Obama Administration policy: No matter what one believes overall about the president’s record on Israel, there is wide agreement that the military and security relationship between the two countries is as strong, if not stronger, than ever. This involves American supply of sophisticated weapons to Israel, including key assistance that enabled Israel to build its vital anti-missile Iron Dome system. It is also reflected in the deep bilateral coordination and consultation between military officials on both sides, at the highest and mid-level positions.
There is little reason to assume that these relations will be diminished under a Hagel tenure at the Department of Defense. Just yesterday, Hagel talked about Israel living in a tough neighborhood and that it must have the means to protect itself. He seems to be beginning to correct his spotty, tepid support for Israel; in September 2012, he co-authored an op-ed closer to President Obama’s stand on Iran and sanctions.
And his history in the Senate showed a recognition of Israel’s security needs and a record of support for U.S. defense aid to Israel.
The combination of the deep relationship between security officials of both countries, the president’s perspective on Israeli security needs, the role of Congress and the fact that Hagel himself acknowledges Israel has security challenges leads me to conclude that that relationship will not change significantly.
Where Hagel’s views diverged from the mainstream and could have more negative impact on Israel are on Iran and on the role of the Israel lobby in the making of American policy.
First, a caveat: When we talk about the bilateral security relationship, that is truly the domain of the Secretary of Defense. So it is critical that Hagel seems in line with past U.S. policy.
Regarding American policy toward Iran and the role of supporters of Israel, the president’s views should be determinative. Mr. Obama has publicly and repeatedly committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb and, if necessary, to use military force to achieve that goal if nothing else works.
Notwithstanding the president’s intentions, however, a Hagel appointment, together with that of John Kerry as Secretary of State, can lead to misperception by Iran that America may be taking the military option off the table. Hagel has stated that he does not believe that America should attack Iran.
This potential reading by Iran of America’s intentions would be a disaster. While sanctions and diplomacy are by far the preferred paths for dealing with the nuclear issue, the likelihood of those approaches working is highly dependent on the Iranian belief that if they do not change policy peacefully, there is the real threat of a U.S. military attack.
Therefore, with the prospect looming of another round of negotiations with Iran, it will be critically important in the days and weeks ahead that the president reiterates his prior commitment to the military option. Indeed, if Hagel should reassert his views on Iran, it may even be necessary for President Obama to find a moment to make clear that Hagel’s position opposing U.S. military action against Iran does not represent U.S. policy which he, the president, decides upon. This, of course, would be awkward and one hopes things won’t have to come to that.
As to Hagel’s comments on the “Jewish lobby,” I, of course, hope that in the Senate hearings he will clarify and apologize.
The fact that Hagel has never been happy with the pressure coming from supporters of Israel is well known. What he needs to do is reassure the Jewish community that his reaction in his public statement went too far and that this in no way will slant his support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, which is a primary American interest. A commitment by him to engage supporters of Israel in dialogue might be helpful in this respect.
All in all, I repeat what I've said elsewhere. Hagel would not have been our choice, but it is the president who has the prerogative to select his Secretary of Defense.
The selection does not have to be as bad as some fear. The security relationship should continue under a Hagel-led Pentagon. And on other matters, particularly Iran, where Hagel apparently comes from a different perspective, we expect the president to make clear that his long-held views will continue as American policy.