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Parsing Hagel’s Non-Answer to the ‘Jewish Lobby’ Question

by Shmuel Rosner

February 3, 2013 | 6:09 am

Hagel at the hearing, photo by Reuters

Chuck Hagel was terrible at the Senate Q & A session. Not just bad like Chris Cillizza argued in the WPost – terrible. I’d have to agree with David Frum that “rarely has a cabinet nominee for so high an office delivered such an awkward appearance before a Senate confirmation panel”. Of course, Frum's goal of torpedoing Hagel’s nomination- a goal shared by several other right wing 'conspirators'- is unlikely to be achieved. The NYT, while admitting “Mr. Hagel was disappointingly unsure of himself at times during the hearing”, still ordered the Democratic majority in the Senate to “confirm Mr. Hagel”. 

This post isn’t about the politics of the Hagel confirmation (assuming that’s already a done deal) but rather an attempt to try and understand why Hagel said what he said about Israel and why the exchange between him and Senator Lindsey Graham of North Carolina went so poorly for Hagel. Take a look:

 

 

I am trying to dispassionately understand Hagel’s response – if this can even be called a response – to Graham’s questioning. Why wouldn’t Hagel give “a name” of a Senator or list “one dumb thing” which was prompted by pro-Israel lobby pressure. And I’m deliberately writing “pro-Israel lobby” and not “Jewish lobby” by way of accepting Hagel’s contention that his choice of term was regrettable. The way I see it, there are four possibilities to be considered. These are as follows:

A.   Hagel’s past statement –“the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here, I’m not an Israeli Senator I’m a US Senator, this pressure makes us do dumb things at times” – was based on no information whatsoever. In other words, maybe Hagel never had a “name” or a “dumb thing” to list. Maybe this was an off the cuff comment based on nothing. In such case, there are two mindsets one could envision as one ponders Hagel’s confirmation hearing:

1.    Hagel knows this was a bluff to begin with, he knows it got him in trouble and he regrets making this irresponsible comment. He didn’t answer Graham because admitting such foolish action would be too humiliating for an incoming Secretary of Defense, and would add more fuel to the spreading sentiment that the candidate “illustrated confusion and perhaps incompetence”.

2.    Hagel knows this was a bluff to begin with, but doesn’t regret making it as it got him exactly where he wanted to be. When Hagel was making his outrageously irresponsible comments all he truly wanted was for it to get some attention, to find new allies that might see his as their possible savior, to find a hitch. He didn’t answer Graham’s questions because no sane candidate for any position would admit to being so calculated and cynical about making such comments.

 

B.   Hagel, as he was making his original comments, had specific persons, actions and policies in mind. In this case, right or wrong, when Hagel was saying that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here, I’m not an Israeli Senator I’m a US Senator, this pressure makes us do dumb things at times” he was thinking about specific cases. Maybe, like current cheerleader Stephen Walt, Hagel believed that a pro-Israel lobby was somehow behind the Iraq war. Maybe he believed that the US was making bad choices in the Israeli-Palestinian arena because of “pressure” from the lobby (rather than a sober assessment of the situation). In such case, there are also two possibilities one could picture as one views Hagel’s hearing:

1.    Hagel, while believing in the past in this “intimidation” theory to which he referred, and while having something in mind at the time he made these comments, eventually came to the conclusion that it was all wrong: No “Jewish”, no “lobby”, no intimidation, no “pressure”, no “dumb things” related to this “pressure” (Hagel surely still thinks that the past policies were dumb, as we can see from his battle with Senator McCain). In this case, Hagel once believed something in which he no longer believes but as such things go he can’t truly reveal this change of heart in a confirmation hearing. It would cast doubt on his ability to make assessments and draw accurate conclusions (in confirmation hearings one has to pretend that one never makes any such errors, seeing that Americans- according to their legislators- want only faultless candidates for any job).

2.    Hagel believed in the past in this “intimidation” theory to which he subscribed and still believes in it: He could name some names – if he only wanted to – and he could list “dumb things” that were done because of “pressure” of a pro-Israel “lobby”. He could do all that and then some, but his first priority is to be confirmed. Since naming such names of colleagues in the Senate might get him in trouble (the names don’t necessarily belong to his critics – they might also include people that Hagel counts as supporters in this confirmation battle) Hagel chose dishonesty and some measure of public humiliation by Graham over taking a risk with the Israel-lobby issue.

 

To sum things up:

If one doesn’t quite see why Hagel is the right man for the job, one might list the four options above as incompetence, cynicism, bad judgment or dishonesty.

On the other hand, if one believes that Hagel is a superb choice for the job (as many still do) one might explain the same four options by saying ‘it’s a confirmation hearing, what did you expect?’.

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