Israel dominated the Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary.
Jim Lobe, last updated: February 02, 2013
Inter Press Service
If former Defence Secretary-designate Sen. Chuck Hagel’s lacklustre performance at his confirmation hearing Thursday heartened neo-conservatives and other hawks opposed to his nomination, those who argued that the Israel lobby has been exerting too great an influence on U.S. foreign policy were ecstatic.
Indeed, Stephen Walt, the Harvard international relations professor who co-authored the “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”, issued a special thanks to the Senate Armed Services Committee that held the hearing on his foreignpolicy.com blog Friday, suggesting that controversial 2007 book should sell like hotcakes after what he called “the Hagel circus”.
“I want to thank the Emergency Committee for Israel, Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Services Committee for providing such a compelling vindication of our views,” wrote Walt, who, among other things, has been accused of anti-Semitism for writing a book that criticised the allegedly excessive influence the Israel lobby wields over U.S. foreign policy and the public debate that surrounds it.
As evidence, Walt cited the number of mentions of Israel and its most powerful regional foe, Iran, received in the course of Hagel’s eight-hour ordeal – 166 and 144, respectively, according to a compilationby the Internet publication, Buzzfeed.
By comparison, he noted, the epidemic of suicides among U.S. troops – a necessary concern for any incoming Pentagon chief – was addressed only twice.
In fact, the degree to which Israel and the threat posed to it by Iran dominated the hearing was somewhat understated by Buzzfeed. The full transcript revealed that Israel was brought up no less than 178 times, followed closely by Iran with 171 mentions.
Those numbers compared with a grand total of five mentions of China, the central focus of the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” from the Middle East to the Asia/Pacific; one mention (by Hagel himself) of Japan, Washington’s closest Asian ally whose territorial dispute with China has recently escalated to dangerous levels; and one mention of South Korea, Washington’s other major treaty ally in Northeast Asia.
Similarly, NATO, Washington’s historically most important military alliance – and one with which it fought a successful air war in Libya last year and is currently fighting its 12th year in Afghanistan – warranted a total of five mentions.
“It is extraordinary that, in an eight-hour hearing, as little attention was devoted as it was to issues such as China and NATO, which ought to be near the top of the concerns for any secretary of defence of the United States,” said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA analyst who served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.
“The emphasis on Israel and Iran – which, in American politics, has become for the most part an Israel issue – demonstrates that the senators were far less concerned with the strategic questions that the secretary of defence should be focused on and much more interested in trying to defeat a nominee who has strayed from political orthodoxy, especially on issues related to Israel,” he told IPS.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, has come under sustained attack from neo-conservatives – who still exercise a preponderant influence on the Republican Party’s foreign policy views despite the general unpopularity of the Iraq war which they championed – since he was first rumoured to be Obama’s top choice to succeed Leon Panetta as Pentagon chief in mid-December.
The New York Times reported Sunday that billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the single biggest contributor to the Republican presidential campaign last year and a staunch supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was involved in the campaign, by far the most expensive and organised ever mounted against a cabinet nominee.
Initially joined in their attacks by some leaders of the more-mainstream and bipartisan Israel lobby, they charged, among other things, that Hagel was anti-Semitic (in part because he had used the phrase “Jewish lobby” on one occasion) and hostile to Israel.
Conversely, they complained, he has been too sympathetic toward Palestinians, too eager to engage Iran and other Israeli foes diplomatically, and too averse to using military force, particularly against Iran if negotiations over its nuclear programme fail.
On these issues, they argued in a mantra subsequently adopted by half a dozen Republican senators, Hagel was “out of the mainstream” or even “far to the left of” Obama himself.
In fact, Hagel’s views on the Middle East and the use of military force, in particular, not only largely reflect those of the administration and, according to public-opinion polls, of a war-weary electorate, but also of most of the foreign-policy elite. Dozens of retired top-ranked diplomatic, intelligence, and military officials, as well as former Cabinet officers from both Republican and Democratic administration have rallied to Hagel’s defence in recent weeks.
But those “mainstream” views are not reflected in Congress, where the Israel lobby has long wielded its greatest influence.
While its main institutions, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), declared their neutrality on the nominee after his formal nomination by Obama earlier this month, they worked with sympathetic senators from both parties and their staffers to ensure that particular questions would be asked that would elicit reassuring answers with respect to both supporting Israel and preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear bomb by any means necessary.
The effort – which was supplemented by angry prosecutorial performances by several senators, notably John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Ted Cruz, closely associated with neo-conservatives – largely worked, as Hagel recanted or softened some of his more-provocative previous statements to the disappointment of many of his supporters.
But, in some respects, the effort, as suggested by Walt, succeeded too well, simply because it demonstrated quite dramatically to the interested public how completely Israel dominates the foreign-policy agenda, at least on Capitol Hill.
After all, the U.S. remains the world’s one superpower with interests in every country. Its defence budget – at well over half a trillion dollars this year — is greater than the combined budgets of the 10 next-most powerful militaries.
Yet Israel was mentioned more often in the hearing, according to IPS’s tally, than the following countries or entities combined: Iraq (30), Afghanistan (27), Russia (23), Palestine or Palestinian (22), Syria (18), North Korea (11), Pakistan (10), Egypt (9), China (5), NATO (5), Libya (2), Bahrain (2), Somalia (2), Al-Qaeda (2), and Mali, Jordan, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea (once each).
Several key regional powers with which Washington has been trying hard to build or already enjoys strong defence relationships – notably India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia – were not mentioned even a single time. Vietnam was mentioned 41 times but exclusively in relation to Hagel’s wartime service there or his work as a senior official in the Veterans Administration.
“They were not asking questions that had any relevance to the tasks facing the secretary of defence, in terms of either the military or budgetary challenges we face,” noted Amb. Chas. Freeman (ret.), whose appointment early in the Obama administration to head the National Intelligence Council (NIC) provoked such a furious campaign by neo-conservatives and key Israel lobby figures that he felt compelled to withdraw his name from consideration.
“So there was no serious discussion of defence or larger strategic issues,” he told IPS. “What was there was a lot of grandstanding about whether or not the nominee was politically correct.”
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com
Retired Gen. Jack Keane is a frequent guest on Fox News and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, where he is a reliable advocate for hawkish, aggressive U.S. foreign policies. Keane has been a vocal supporter of U.S. strikes in both Iraq and Syria on ISIS. However, left unmentioned in Keane's media appearances are his extensive ties to military contractors that might benefit from a protracted conflict in the Middle East—including Academi, the latest incarnation of the notorious Blackwater, which in 2012 hired Keane as a “strategic adviser.”
Ben Wattenberg is an author and demographer who was based at the American Enterprise Institute for many years. He was also the host of Think Tank, a PBS talk show that aired during 1994-2010. A veteran of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger, Wattenberg was part of a vanguard of neoconservative figures who in the 1970s drifted from the Democratic Party to the hawkish right. Alongside his foreign policy advocacy, Wattenberg has written numerous alarmist tracts on social issues, including worrying about declining birth rates in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and warning that “Divorce, legalized abortion, and easy-to-use contraceptives have all contributed to the numbers of ‘never-born babies,’” creating a “social deficit’ that plagues nations across the world.”
Brigette Gabriel, a Lebanese-born anti-Islamic activist and founder of the right-wing group ACT! for America, is notorious for making fear-mongering claims about terrorism and Islam. She has called the Islamic faith “not compatible with Western civilization” and insisted that a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.” At a Heritage Foundation event earlier this year, Gabriel drew scrutiny after she verbally attacked a Muslim American law student, questioning whether the student was an American. More recently, capitalizing on right-wing hysteria over immigration and extremist groups in the Middle East, Gabriel alleged that ISIS members were crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, citing reports from unnamed “members of the Department of Homeland Security.”
As a director of the Project for the New American Century in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gary Schmitt helped spread inaccurate information about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and promote the invasion of Iraq. Schmitt subsequently supported U.S. intervention in Syria, whose own civil war was directly linked to the fallout from Iraq. Schmitt has also been a vocal advocate of NATO expansion, which many observers think has contributed to the current tensions between the West and Russia. Schmitt has also advocated revoking U.S. security guarantees for Western European countries unless they increase their military budgets and adopt a more controversial approach to Russia.
AIPAC’s failed efforts to force U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war and to scuttle U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, along with its increasing alienation from younger Jewish Americans on the Palestinian issue, have led many critics of the lobby to conclude that its formidable influence is slowly eroding. “Today, a growing number of American Jews, though still devoted to Israel, struggle with the lack of progress toward peace with the Palestinians. Many feel that AIPAC does not speak for them,” reported The New Yorker in a lengthy profile last August. On the other hand, the group was still able to push through emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, prompting one GOP Senate aide to complain, “The worst part was having to vote for this at a time we are all so upset by the killing in Gaza. It's as if AIPAC knows how angry we are so the whole Senate has to take their test. They will make us cast a totally symbolic vote, just to show who's in charge.”
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