In the Arena

The Israel Lobby and Hagel

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Lauren Victoria Burke / AP

Chuck Hagel delivers remarks to the Brookings Institution on U.S. foreign policy and the 2008 presidential campaign in Washington on June 26, 2008.

Jeff Goldberg has an interesting post about the mixed feelings that the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) may have about launching a major lobbying campaign against Chuck Hagel.

He may be right–and it would be wonderful if true–but I know that AIPAC has been quietly working the phones, arguing against the nomination. There is a difference between that and a full-bore lobbying campaign, but AIPAC’s pro-Netanyahu posture has always been clear. (Update: Eli Lake, who knows this territory well, is also reporting that AIPAC will stand down.)

While on this subject, I should note, with sadness, that Ed Koch–a great mayor of New York and one of the most clever politicians I’ve ever covered–has gone off the high board on the Hagel nomination. There is much that is odious about Koch’s statement, but the idea that the President has “betrayed” Israel by nominating Hagel is the most outrageous.

(MORE: Hagel: A Different Kind of Defense Secretary)

These notions of betrayal and appeasement (pace Bill Kristol), perfumed with intimations of anti-Semitism are part of a hyperbolic corruption of common usage, favored by neoconservatives and their extremist allies. Can Nazi metaphors be far behind? Oh, wait a minute: the idea that negotiating with Iran constitutes “appeasement,” as Kristol has harangued, is a direct reference to Neville Chamberlain’s catastrophic cave to Hitler in the 1930s.

This sort of thinking pre-supposes two false premises: that Jews are as weak and helpless as they were in Nazi Germany, and that the dreadful regime in Iran has the strength and imperial hunger of the Nazis. The truth is, Israel is the most powerful country in the region, by far. It has a nuclear arsenal. It has a powerful military and a nonpareil intelligence service. Iran, by contrast, is near economic collapse as a result of the global economic sanctions organized by–yes–Barack Obama. Its nuclear program is constantly sabotaged by computer viruses launched by a joint effort of Israel’s intelligence services and–yes–the Obama Administration. Is this what Ed Koch means by betrayal?

There is no question that Iran’s government is a disgrace, but not because its powerless president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, goes about denying the holocaust and threatening Israel with elimination. It is a disgrace in the same way that the other police state dictatorships in the region–the Assads, Mubaraks and Saddams–were disgraceful. The patina of religiosity cloaks a military dictatorship run by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is brutal and dangerous, but eminently containable.

(MORE: The Hagel Choice)

So why all the Nazi talk? Two reasons: Ahmadinejad’s effusions make Iran’s leadership seem crazy–and that craziness is something that works for both Netanyahu and Iran’s real leaders. It gins up the global concern about Iran, summons extreme statements by the likes of John McCain and Mitt Romney, which makes the regime’s delusion of a Great Satan intent on destroying the Islamic Republic more plausible. This is more a matter of domestic propaganda than international policy:  the regime isn’t very popular among the Iranian public, but most Iranians are patriots, proud of their country’s heritage–even to the point of wanting a nuclear weapon, because they foolishly believe would restore Iran’s power and greatness in the world. In the days before the 2009 election, I interviewed most of the leaders of the Green movement, which was rhapsodized by McCain and his acolytes, and every one of them was steadfastly in favor of Iran’s nuclear program–indeed, they subsequently blasted Ahmadinejad for being willing to make a deal with India and Turkey stopping the production of highly enriched uranium and shipping the stuff already produced out of the country. (Given that he was completely powerless to make such a deal, Ahmadinejad was, as usual, blowing smoke.)

Negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue won’t be easy, although I suspect there will be movement soon. But if the negotiations fail, containment and deterrence will be easy–far easier than it was with the Soviet Union–and ultimately successful. Unlike many of the states in the region, Iran is a real country. Its borders weren’t drawn by Europeans. Tehran is a major world capital with a population north of 12 million. It was rocketed by the Iraqis in the 1980s; a million casualties, including 100,000 poison gas victims, were taken in that war. The most powerful impulse of the current Iranian leadership is to avoid a repeat of that disaster, despite the often-loony rhetoric. Both the CIA and the Mossad believe that the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard are tough, intransigent, sometimes brutal, but not crazy enough to launch a nuclear weapon and see their 5,000 year old civilization atomized. This is not Nazi Germany.

The second reason why neoconservatives hype their rhetoric is that it serves as a smokescreen for a basic fact: they’ve been wrong about absolutely everything since 9/11. In the run-up to the Iraq war, prominent leaders like Malcolm Hoenlein–of the egregiously-named Conference of President of Major Jewish American Organization–were spreading the word that taking out Saddam would make the world safer for Israel. That sort of nonsense didn’t cause the war–Bush and Cheney were hurtling in that direction no matter what–but it didn’t impede it either. And since the Iraq disaster became clear, the record of the Bomber Boys, Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, and their allies has been undimmed by anything approaching rationality on any other national defense issue.

(MORE: Why Hagel Is So Well-Informed)

There is a third reason: they’ve been able to get away with their bullying. Accusing someone of being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is powerful juju…until it is misused. When you start flinging around these canards and libels to describe people who support Israel but don’t want to see the illegal settlements expand, or who want to negotiate with Iran, you are debasing the currency. The accusations become meaningless.

A few years ago, the doddering head of the Anti-Defamation league, Abe Foxman, accused me of anti-Semitism because I wrote that some of the Jewish members of the neoconservative tribe were confusing America’s national interests with (what they inaccurately perceived to be) Israel’s national interests, that they were, in effect, putting Israel first. There was much sturm and even more drang. A deeply clueless blogger for Commentary wrote that “We know how these things end and they don’t end well.” In other words, I would be forced to apologize or be reprimanded or be fired. None of that happened. I’m still here–still a proud supporter of Jewish democracy in Israel, still convinced that the neoconservative course is bloody, myopic and immoral.

There is anti-Semitism still abroad in the world. It is as disgusting as ever. There are those who devoutly wish to see the destruction of Israel. They are morally obtuse and practically insane. But the extreme rantings of the Hoenleins and Kristols and Foxmans, often funded by bounders like Sheldon Adelson, are making it more difficult to identity those in this world who really would do harm to Jews and to Israel.  They will make plenty of noise, and maybe raise some money from the gullible during the coming weeks, but I suspect that by overhyping their opposition to Hagel, they will do far more harm than good to the image of Jews and of Israel.

MORE: President Obama Taps Former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel to Run Pentagon