Smerconish: Chuck Hagel deserves a second look
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I know from watching the recent Senate confirmation hearing what Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., thinks of Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for defense secretary, for once having used the words "Jewish lobby" in an interview. (Hagel has since said he regrets his word choice.) But Graham's testy questioning of Hagel made me wonder about someone else's reaction - the Middle East negotiator to whom Hagel had made the comment.
So I asked Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar and vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He has served a half-dozen American secretaries of state (in both parties) and has worked as a Middle East peace negotiator for 25 years. Miller interviewed then-Sen. Hagel in 2006 while writing "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace," which was published in 2008.
The sound bite being used by Hagel's detractors is: "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." I asked Miller whether it was an "a-ha" moment when Hagel said those words.
"I'm perhaps more conditioned than most - I happen to be a member of the American Jewish community - to understand rather than to judge," Miller said. "I'm in the business of promoting American national interest, so I think that requires a certain amount of nuance and understanding in context. No, what I thought from the Hagel interview was, this is a guy who is very clear and very honest and, frankly, on the subject of Israel, that really does make him pretty unique. ... The fact is this man is an American patriot. He believes in the national interest."
Hagel had been arguing to Miller that Israel's advocates often harm their own interests by asking elected officials to do "dumb things." (When pressed on this reference by Graham, Hagel did not give a specific example.)
Hagel then shared an anecdote about being pressed by "a couple of these guys (who) said we should just attack Iran."
After some give and take, Hagel finally told them: "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States - not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.
If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that. Now I know most senators don't talk like I do."
Miller told me that Hagel was one of several senators, representatives, Arab Americans, and Jewish Americans whom he interviewed for a chapter on domestic politics. Hagel, said Miller, "was very clear and honest in his analysis of the problem and he used this term or this phrase, 'Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,' in the context of a certain reality that there really isn't what I would describe to you as an open and critical debate in Congress on questions pertaining to Israel."
According to Miller, a more prudent, accurate word choice for Hagel would have been "pro-Israeli," given that support for Israel comes not only from American Jews, many of whom aren't affiliated with any organization or synagogue, but also millions more Americans who are both evangelical Christians (like Graham) and non-evangelical Christians, not to mention atheists.
"Pro-Israeli" doesn't have the negative connotation of "Jewish lobby." "I think Hagel regrets using it," Miller said. "I don't think his use of it, however, reflects the fact that he is hostile to the state of Israel. He's not. He's not an enemy of the state of Israel and he certainly is not, as some of his more extreme critics have charged - none of his former colleagues, to be sure - an anti-Semite," Miller said.
Miller's comments make me think that, on the subject of Israel, Hagel's point that Israel is deserving of our support, but poorly served by any uncritical allegiance, Graham did all the work for him.
Hagel would be the first Vietnam veteran, and first enlisted soldier, to be defense secretary. No doubt he needs a little PR polish. His testimony in his Senate confirmation hearing was underwhelming. Even Robert Gibbs, the president's former press secretary, said Hagel was both "unimpressive and unprepared."
However, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who has known Hagel, a fellow Vietnam veteran, for years, told me he is saddened that his fellow Republicans have put up a "superficial protest" against the nomination.
Ridge called Hagel a "perfect fit," and said he thinks the opposition comes from Hagel's "standing up and going against the flow. I want that same sort of candor and introspection . . . which will be very helpful in the years ahead."
On a personal level, Ridge said Hagel is "a man with a great sense of humor, with high expectations, who is very demanding."
"For me, it's always been a pleasure to work with him."
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.