It is not surprising that pro-Israel conservative groups such as the Emergency Committee for Israel or Christians United for Israel should weigh in strongly against the potential for a Chuck Hagel nomination for the defense secretary post. (The latter group has noted, “During his time in the Senate, Sen. Hagel consistently refused to support meaningful action against Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s terrorist Revolutionary Guard and Iran’s chief puppet, Hezbollah.”) But making more of an impact, perhaps, are the admonitions of Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
I spoke with Rabbi Cooper by phone today. He began by saying flat-out of Hagel, “He is no friend of Israel.” The substance of his argument was two-fold.
First, in making the case that we are reaching a critical time with Iran, he observed, “The mullahs read the tea leaves. We need to send a muscular signal to the region. . . . Unfortunately, [Hagel] is the worst possible signal.” Cooper related that he had just been in Washington and talked to administration officials about Iran. Although the topic of Hagel did not come up, Cooper said he is confident that President Obama is “moving toward” a more forceful stance toward Iran to “head off” its development of nuclear weapons. That effort, he thinks, would be undermined by a pick like Hagel, who has openly opposed sanctions and military action. He stressed, “You have to be able to send a message to the world along with President Obama’s diplomacy. ‘We have a big stick.’ The DOD is the place for that to come from. [The Defense secretary] is the best person to send to back up the diplomacy.” He summed up: “You want to project intelligence and compassion but also power.”
He then made the case that Hagel’s language about the Jewish lobby is especially harmful overseas. It was an argument I had not heard, but Cooper, who travels the world confronting anti-Semitism, was just back from Greece, where the economic crisis has lit the match under anti-Semitism. He cautioned that while some in the U.S. might say it is not a big deal, the term “Jewish lobby” or “Israel lobby” is gaining currency around the globe. He told me that this language denotes the sort of malicious conspiracy theories and accusations of disloyalty that are gaining a foothold. ” Whatever the context [for Hagel's comments], the shorthand in the Middle East, Europe and online is so far gone. That terminology is really now shorthand for the worst kind of anti-Semitic mindset.” He noted, “In the world I have to deal with, that is a devastatingly corrosive image invoked openly by the kind of people openly proud of anti-Semitism.”
In other words, Hagel is tone-deaf at a time when alarm bells are ringing all over the Middle East and the U.S. Cooper put it simply, “He is the wrong choice at the wrong time.”
While lying low, Democratic senators should be increasingly nervous that they will be presented with a nominee who is not defensible and proves to be an embarrassment to the administration. One can imagine the administration will soon trot out an ally (Colin Powell call your office! Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) the president is on the line!) to try to insulate Hagel from criticism and give Democrats cover. But it’s easy for those who don’t cast votes to do a favor for the president while sticking it to conservative hawks they despise. On this issue, however, Republicans senators will have an easy no vote; it’s the Democrats who will be trapped.