Now that Chuck Hagel has finally been confirmed by the US Senate as the nation’s new Secretary of Defense, we can look back and take stock of the ugly battle that some of his opponents waged to stop him getting the job.
While some of the former Republican Senator’s critics raised legitimate points that deserved to be answered, others broke all the unwritten rules of US politics by waging a slime and smear campaign with no regard to the truth.
Take the accusation, first broached by respected American Jewish leaders, that Hagel was anti-Semitic, or close to it. This came in various different ways, but let’s take as an example the statement by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Elliott Abrams, a former Bush Administration official who pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra investigation.
In a radio interview, Abrams said Hagel “seems to have some kind of problem with Jews.” He cited unnamed Jews from Hagel’s home state of Nebraska as his source.
There was only one problem, as the Daily Forward reported a couple of days later: “Jews in Nebraska on both sides of Hagel’s confirmation fight emphatically refute the charge.” Even Hagel’s detractors did not believe he was in any way anti-Semitic and several prominent local Jews came out in support of the nomination.
“He was interested in hearing my Israel narrative. He spoke about the Middle East, war and peace, about the military,” said Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of the Reform synagogue Temple Israel.
Next, let’s take the so-called “Friends of Hamas” incident, which would have been funny if it were not so sad. The rumor that Hagel had accepted money from this imaginary group originated with reporter Dan Friedman of the New York Daily News who explained:
On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed? I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the ‘Junior League of Hezbollah, in France?’ And: What about ‘Friends of Hamas?’
The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.
Next day, the conservative Website Breitbart.com screamed this headline: SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON ‘FRIENDS OF HAMAS.’ The story read: “
On Thursday, Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called ‘Friends of Hamas.’
The right-wing attack machine smelled blood, the blogosphere went crazy and even respected politicians appeared ready to accept the story at face value. In Israel, former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said “rumors of Chuck Hagel’s having received funds from Friends of Hamas,” would, if true, “disqualify him.”
There was no attempt to check, to verify, to question or query or to give Hagel the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. If it seemed to hurt Hagel, the attitude among his opponents was, “use it.” Whether it was true or not did matter.
Exhibit three in the case against Hagel was a comment he allegedly made in a Q&A after a speech at Rutgers University in 2007 that the State Department “has become adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office.” It was reported by the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing website devoted to ‘uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day’ and based on the memory of one person.
Others who were present, including Charles Häberl, a Rutgers University professor at the Center for Middle East Studies which hosted the event, said Hagel did not make the comment attributed to him:
I’m certain that he did not make the remark attributed to him. The one blogger who related this remark, George Ajjan, has also claimed that the event was ‘closed to the press,’ which is demonstrably false.
Throughout this ugly battle, Hagel and his supporters were hamstrung by the fact that they had to keep to the truth while their adversaries had no such qualms. I suppose there’s some comfort in the fact that ultimately Hagel did get confirmed. But as a member of a people which has suffered so much through its history from the spread of libels and lies, I find the whole episode deeply depressing.
In 1954, when Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Community witch hunt was at its height, lawyer Joseph Welsh rose to defend one of the victims: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
I repeat those words to Hagel’s critics today.