Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is seen speaking in Omaha on… (Nati Harnik / Associated…)
First, critics went after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and unfairly short-circuited her candidacy to be secretary of State. Now, a similar campaign is being waged against former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who reportedly is President Obama's choice to be secretary of Defense.
We aren't ready to pronounce Hagel qualified for the position. But once again, just as with Rice, the comments being seized on by his opponents are not sufficient to disqualify him from consideration.
There are essentially three counts in the indictment: that he is too eager to reduce Pentagon spending; that as a senator he opposed sanctions against Iran at a time when that country was meddling in Iraq; and that he is hostile to Israel. The first two complaints are easily dismissed. Obama also is concerned about defense overspending. As for Iran, Hagel would be in no position as Defense secretary to undermine sanctions against that country, which are designed to deter it from developing a nuclear weapon.
More potent politically is the claim that Hagel is anti-Israel. That charge is based on a number of previous policy positions he has taken, but critics are most exercised by his statement that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." To refer to a "Jewish lobby" is both impolitic and inaccurate in that it suggests that all activists who lobby on Israel's behalf are Jewish and that all Jews are defenders of Israeli policy. He shouldn't have said that.
But it is perfectly reasonable to observe that there is a strong lobby on behalf of Israel and that members of Congress are wary of alienating it; to say so is to state the obvious and does not suggest, as a Wall Street Journal columnist argued, that Hagel views the pro-Israel lobby as possessing "vast, invisible and malevolent" powers.
Hagel also has been criticized for saying that "I'm a United States senator, not an Israeli senator." But what's so bad about that? Despite the close relationship, U.S. and Israeli positions sometimes diverge (as they have done for decades over Jewish settlements in the West Bank).
Aaron David Miller, a scholar who advised Republican and Democratic administrations on Middle East issues, told the New York Times that "there should not be a litmus test of whether he is pro-Israel enough." We agree. If Obama is convinced that Hagel is the right candidate, he should nominate him — and let the Senate exercise its responsibility of advice and consent.