In his first term as president of the United States, Barack Obama was able to achieve very few of his legislative goals because of the intransigence of the Republican Party. A strange quirk of American democracy allows even the minority party to kill pretty much any bill through procedural delays and the use of the filibuster. So, even though Democrats control the executive and half of the legislature, they are unable to pass bills that do not command at least the grudging support of the Republicans. Now, this system of divided government is threatening to bring down President Obama’s cabinet nominees, too. First, the nomination of Susan Rice, President Obama’s initial choice as secretary of state to replace Hilary Clinton, had to be withdrawn after Republicans accused her of lying about the cause of the embassy attack in Benghzai in which the US ambassador to Libya was killed. The accusation was trumped up and ridiculous but it worked.
Now, the Republicans are gunning for President Obama’s defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel. The attack on him was initially slightly surprising since Hagel himself is a Republican. The charges against him are even more spurious than those against Rice and reflect an ugly strain in American politics. Hagel once mistakenly referred to the ‘Jewish lobby’ when the politically correct term is ‘Israel lobby’ and he has been an occasional and mild critic of Israel and its settlement policy. Hagel has also taken a decidedly moderate — by US standards — position towards Iran, outright opposing war and being lukewarm on sanctions. For this, he incurred the wrath of not just the Republicans but the very powerful Israel lobby. Advertisements have been taken out against his nomination and he is being vilified in the media.
The Democrats currently hold 55 seats in the Senate and only 51 votes are required to confirm a nominee, which means that Hagel’s appointment should be a done deal. However, the power of the Israel lobby is so widespread and its ability to propogandise against politicians it dislikes so legendary that both parties are loath to cross it. Thus, you have Democrat senators like Chuck Schumer of New York, a state with significant numbers of Jewish voters, already speaking out against the Hagel confirmation. At the very least, Hagel’s confirmation hearings will be bitter and bloody, while in a worst case scenario he will be shot down as defense secretary. Even some liberal groups, unwittingly aiding the Israel lobby, have opposed Hagel for some homophobic remarks he made 15 years ago and subsequently apologised for.
The strangest aspect of the Hagel controversy is that by the president he is being appointed to serve has been reliably hawkish in his first term. President Obama has imposed tougher sanctions on Iran than even his predecessor George W Bush. He has been complicit in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and has refused to rule out war with Iran. He has also, a few words about settlements aside, been as strong a supporter of Israel as any other US president. Since policy will ultimately be set by President Obama and not Hagel, this whole affair has likely been a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
The whole point of creating this hue and cry over Hagel goes beyond opposing just one nominee. It is a warning to any other politician who may consider ever speaking against Israel that they will be hounded for the rest of their political lives. A chilling effect takes place whereby politicians see their contributions dry up and television advertisements aired against them if they go against the wishes of the Israel lobby and the military-industrial complex.
President Obama should fight to the mats for Hagel’s nomination to avoid this very scenario. Hagel is far from the perfect nominee but his defeat would move the political landscape in the US even further to the right. It will embolden Israel to become even more aggressive in pursuing settlements and waging war on the Palestinians and it will make war with Israel slightly more likely. A conservative-realist Republican senator is possibly the last person you would expect to become the face of the anti-war movement but US politics creates strange bedfellows.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2013.
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