Shortly before his inauguration, President Obama nominated Republican Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, showing his ability to make unexpected decisions to the surprise of many. Some are even worried – especially in Israel. Appointments to various posts of officials who served under the administration of a rival party have been made before, for example Robert Gates to the same post, but they were mostly experts rather than politicians. Hagel is something else. He is actually one of the leaders of the Republican Party. His nomination in itself says much about all the conventions of the inter-party conflict in the American political scene. Unusually for such a nomination is the fact that Hagel has tense relations with the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, without the approval of which it is difficult to count on occupying the post. But is this fear justified?
Chuck Hagel was born on October 4, 1946 in North Platte (Nebraska). He was the U.S. Senator for Nebraska for the years 1997-2009, and was a member of the Committees on Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Banking. It was in the Senate, that he established a close personal, and even rumored «friendly» relationship with the future president and then colleague – Senator Barack Obama.
In 1967-1968 he served in the U.S. Army, during the Vietnam War, where he went as a volunteer, and where holding the rank of sergeant, he served as an infantry squad leader in the 9th Infantry Division, participating in many battles – both in cities and in the jungle. He was awarded two «Purple Heart» medals. Before that, in 1966, he finished at the Brown Institute of Radio and Television. After returning from Vietnam, he worked as a radio newscaster and talk show host on television in Omaha. So Hagel is well-versed in how to create images, and can work with the public. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1972, and moved to Washington to work as a lobbyist. In 1984 he founded «Vanguard Cellular» (mobile phone operator) and became a multimillionaire. He also engaged in banking and investment activities. He has served on the boards of some of the largest companies (for example, oil giant Chevron Corporation and Deutsche Bank America). In 1990 he was deputy director of the «Group of Seven» economic summit. In 1996 he switched to politics.
The particular noise in America around Hagel’s appointment to the post of Secretary of Defense arose from the fact that he had repeatedly stated «anti-Israel» sentiment and was in too conciliatory a mood toward Iran. On January 3rd, in The New York Times newspaper, a long article was published for publicity purposes in which Hagel was subjected to the most severe criticism. The authors claimed that, if he is appointed the Pentagon will fall apart, Israeli-American relations will collapse and lead to the general weakening of the U.S.
Against the Hagel nomination, in particular, are members of the American bi-partisan pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC. The NORPAC activists called Hagel, a politician «taking care of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as the countries that sponsor terrorism, such as Syria».
Hagel was reminded about his refusal to sign a letter in support of Israel, his refusal to support action against the meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush with Yasser Arafat, and accusing Israel of aggression against the Lebanese people (in 2006), for his refusal to support the demand to recognize «Hezbollah» as a terrorist organization, his speeches in opposition to the inclusion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, and against Iranian sanctions… (1) He is also credited as being discontent with the Jewish lobby in Washington and thinks that the White House pays too much attention to Israel – to the detriment of U.S. allies in the Middle East. Senator Lindsey Graham in an interview with CNN said he intends to initiate hearings on a number of statements Hagel has made on Israel, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said that Israel is concerned about the appointment of Chuck Hagel, who once refused to support an appeal to the European Union with a request to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and also opposed the inclusion in such a list of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.(2)
It is noteworthy that Tehran has supported the Hagel candidacy. This was stated by the Senior Deputy Minister of Iranian Foreign Affairs, Ramin Mehmanparast, who expressed the hope that, if Chuck Hagel is approved by the Senate to head the Pentagon, the tensions between Tehran and Washington will change for the better. According to him, Hagel is able to make «practical changes» in U.S. foreign policy. He also stressed that the country will change their attitude toward the United States, if the U.S. government will respect their rights. (3)
Meanwhile, complaints against Hagel are expressed not only by Israeli lobbyists and the neoconservatives, but also the opposing political wing – the left and pacifists who do not see him as a peace-lover. The candidate for the post of the head of the Pentagon was reminded that, for all his peaceful rhetoric, he voted for the invasion of Kosovo, the second war in Iraq, to increase the military budget, for cutting the rights and freedoms of Americans, cutting taxes for the rich, and so on. In fact, in the Senate, Hagel supported almost all the initiatives of George W. Bush, although he loved to criticize him. American left wingers consider Hagel as a typical political opportunist, believing that he will continue the unjustified rise in military spending, self-destructive military adventures around the world and the creation of useless but very expensive types of weapons.
Hagel himself rather confirms these opinions. In anticipation of his consideration as a candidate for the Senate, where due to the sentiments attributed to him he may have had serious difficulties, he called all the accusations of his opponents regarding his anti-Israel sentiment as false. Hagel argues that in the case of his appointment as Secretary of Defense, he will fully support the existing ongoing policy, in which Israel is seen as an important strategic partner of the U.S. in the Middle East.
According to him, no one has the slightest evidence that he adheres to anti-Israel views and supports Iran's nuclear program.
In fact, according to him, he has always unequivocally expressed his general support for the State of Israel. Contrary to exaggerated optimism in Tehran, Chuck Hagel called rumors of his pro-Iranian views «false and a distortion of reality». «I have said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism», he stressed.
Regarding the lack of support from his side for some initiatives from a leading pro-Israel lobbying organization – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Hagel explained that «I didn't sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn't solve a problem». As for the sanctions against Iran, in the opinion of the former senator, it is much more effective to introduce them collectively, and not unilaterally.
«I have not supported unilateral sanctions because, when it is us alone, they don't work and they just isolate the United States», he said. «United Nations sanctions are working. When we just decree something, that doesn't work». emphasized Chuck Hagel in an interview with the U.S. newspaper Lincoln Journal Star.
As a result, a number of prominent Jewish politicians in the Democratic Party have already announced that they are ready to support the candidacy of Chuck Hagel. Among them are Senator Dianne Feinstein (California) and Carl Levin (Michigan). At the same time, other senators such as Charles Schumer (New York) are still undecided on a final decision on the matter and may stand against the appointment. There are those who are categorically against the candidacy of Chuck Hagel – a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Congressman Eliot Engel (New York), former vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Susan Turnbull, and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
The National Jewish Democratic Council, after Barack Obama officially nominated Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon, expressed the hope that in spite of a number of controversial statements in the past, in taking up his new post the former senator from Nebraska will act in a spirit of «unprecedented pro-Israel support for Barack Obama». (4)
Thus, the fears of the Israelis that Chuck Hagel will be unfriendly to them and of an excessively peaceable disposition, are a little exaggerated, shall we say. Moreover, in trying to prove that he really is strong enough, the new Secretary of Defense of the U.S. will be able to go even further in the conduct of military operations overseas, such as in Syria, more than any of the other potential leaders of the Pentagon. His reluctance to get involved in direct conflict with Iran is well within the White House's plans, while it is possible» to confine Syria». Who knows, maybe the uproar around the appointment of Chuck Hagel, partly pursues the goal of pushing him into making the tough decisions? Obama's intention to move him to the Secretary’s post may not be motivated by personal friendship alone. After all, if something goes wrong in the Middle East, it may be convenient that a Republican politician is responsible for it.