The furor that has surrounded the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be President Obama’s Secretary of Defense has shed a searing light on the way some political lobbies operate these days in Washington.
Some seem to take their cue from a classic Monty Python sketch, “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!” In that immortal skit, a cardinal lists his main weapons in exposing heretics as “fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency … and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.”
The United States has entered a period of hyper-partisan politics dominated by powerful interest groups which herd politicians into obedience using both carrots and sticks. The carrots are political support, campaign dollars and the promise of a quiet life with no anxiety about losing their seats. The stick is fear, pure and simple.
Like the Catholic Church in the era of the Inquisition, today’s big political lobbies are united by their insistence on ideological purity and total loyalty to their causes, whether domestic or foreign, economic or social.
When it comes to Israel, the standard is simple. Either, politicians lend their support to almost every action the Israeli government takes or they risk being labeled as untrustworthy. The thinking seems to be, “You are either with us 100 percent of the time – or you’re against us.”
This is course was Hagel’s great sin – not that he does not support Israel’s security or the US-Israel alliance or Israel’s qualitative military edge or deepening military cooperation between the two nations. He endorses, and has always endorsed all of these, in deed as well as in word.
But Hagel is the rare politician who insists on thinking for himself, in weighing each congressional vote and letter on its merits and in opposing actions which he regards as damaging to Israel’s own long-term interests and to the US-Israel relationship. In that regards, he is much like President Obama himself. And for right-wing neoconservative zealots who demand unquestioned and unquestioning obedience, that is unacceptable.
Fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion – we’ve seen all of these in the Hagel nomination battle. Well before he was formally nominated, his opponents and critics launched a blistering series of personal attacks on the former senator, criticizing him as not being sufficiently pro-Israel or insufficiently anti-Iran – and in some cases characterizing his views as verging on anti-Semitism. Groups and individuals circulated talking points on Capitol Hill taking past votes and quotes from years ago out of context, distorting some and blowing up others to absurd degrees. Jewish communal leaders who should have known better weighed in. Suddenly, the nomination seemed to be in grave danger.
AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, did not take a formal position either for or against the nomination. However, several AIPAC allies have been prominent in the fight to defeat Hagel. Backed by big money, they have run TV and newspaper ads and kept up a barrage of criticism – but this time, it’s not working.
Although perhaps they should have seen this assault coming, Hagel and his allies seemed unprepared and it took them a few days to get organized. This was the most dangerous phase of the campaign, when it appeared possible that President Obama would pull the nomination and opt for a safer choice.
But the right-wing miscalculated. Former Secretaries of State, US ambassadors to Israel, foreign policy experts and Jews from Nebraska who had known him for years lined up behind Hagel. Obama stood firm. One by one, key senators began falling into line. The anti-Hagel campaign is turning into a major defeat for its backers – and this has real implications for the future of US politics and for Israel advocacy in the United States. Hopefully, it will encourage politicians across the board to feel free to defy those who seek to remove their ability to think for themselves on issues regarding Israel.
The battle over Hagel is a gut-check moment for America. If indeed, as now looks likely, he is confirmed, some big lobbies, including AIPAC, may have to re-examine how they do business. They may actually have to make their case on its merits. Fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the cause may not cut it any more.