, last updated: January 16, 2013
The Emergency Committee for Israel is a neoconservative pressure group that has pushed the United States to attack Iran and smeared critics—real or perceived—of the U.S. relationship with Israel. Its latest target is former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican nominated to head the Obama administration’s Department of Defense. In a series of vicious attack ads, which one blogger called “ugly” and “facts-optional,” ECI has accused the Vietnam veteran of being weak on Iran and hostile towards Israel.
Well-known neoconservative activist and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol has tried to shape national discourse on everything from the Iraq War to the choice of Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan as GOP vice presidential candidates. Kristol’s latest campaign has been aimed at spurring opposition to the nomination of former Senator Hagel as defense secretary. The campaign appears to be part of a broader Kristol-led effort to de-emphasize unpopular GOP fiscal positions and instead focus on cultivating the party’s hawkish agenda in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat.
Marshall Wittmann is a longtime Washington operative whose interventionist, “pro-Israel” politics have led him to take a variety of positions—including on the staffs of Sens. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, at the Christian Coalition, and at think tanks espousing various ideological stripes. Now a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Wittman was recently tasked with explaining why AIPAC would stay silent on the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to head the Defense Department—a nomination other “pro-Israel” groups have made a cause celebré of opposing. Wittman said AIPAC “does not take positions on presidential nominations,” but experienced insiders think the group is reluctant to sacrifice its influence at the Pentagon over a nomination fight it is likely to lose.
Randy Scheunemann is a well-connected Washington lobbyist whose clients have included Tea Party politicos, the National Rifle Association, defense contractors, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Scheunemann also frequently teams up with neoconservative ideologues to help push particular foreign policy agenda items. A one-time director of the notorious Project for the New American Century—the letterhead group that helped push the United States into the Iraq War—Scheunemann has more recently joined his fellow neocons in trying to sink the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. He quipped recently that Hagel is a “now the über-realist about not committing ground troops” but he had “no compunction about endorsing the guy [Senator McCain] who wanted all options on the table” in Kosovo.
The track record of Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, includes pressing the Iraq “surge,” arguing against U.S. engagement with Iran, and charging Chuck Hagel with “anti-Semitism” for criticizing the influence of the Israel lobby. It is not the first time Pletka has wielded this slur. In May 2004, for example, she told a Washington Post reporter: “I think the phrase 'neocon' is much more popular among people who think it shields their anti-Semitism. But it doesn't.”
According to the GOP strategist and super-PAC head, Chuck Hagel’s support for John McCain over George W. Bush in 2000 revealed something about the former senator’s character. “When McCain became a credible candidate he just flipped,” Rove said in a recent interview. “That’s Hagel: mercurial, focused on doing it his way.”
FROM THE WIRES
Chuck Hagel is no political progressive, but the former Nebraska senator does have a history of butting heads with neoconservatives, the defense industry, and the Israel lobby.
President Obama’s appointment of Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon will likely prove contentious, even as his appointment of John Brennan—an architect of the administration’s controversial targeted killing program—will likely proceed unencumbered.
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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.”
Despite the origins of the terrorist group ISIS in the fallout of the Iraq War, leading Iraq hawk Bill Kristol has no qualms about potential blowback from sending U.S. troops back to the country. “Intellectuals overthink things,” he said in August. “We got involved in Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Union and probably helped create, indirectly, some of what came about in Afghanistan and ideas that led to 9/11. That’s life. Maybe we could have been cleverer in all these cases, but often, when you mess around in the real world, you have unintended effects and some of them are bad.” Seeming to forget his previous point, Kristol concluded by wondering, “What’s the harm of bombing [ISIS] at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that could be bad there. We could kill a lot of very bad guys.”
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