The Absurd Chuck Hagel Anti-Semitism Accusations

President Obama must defend Chuck Hagel against ridiculous accusations that he's an anti-Semite.

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Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is reported to be among the choices for President Barack Obama's next defense secretary.

Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When the law is on your side, argue the law. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, call your opponent an anti-Semite.

Such is the neoconservative approach to the marketplace of ideas.

Beltway elites are currently carrying on a kabuki debate over whether Chuck Hagel, a two-term U.S. senator, is an anti-Semite. Stop and ponder this for a second. You're being asked to believe that an anti-Semite has been hiding in plain sight, for 12 years at the senate and afterward heading the Atlantic Council, an establishmentarian think tank, and teaching at Georgetown. An anti-Semite.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The entire charade is absurd, but the good news is that if the Obama people are smart, they can cut the neocons down to size, and prevent this sort of thing from poisoning our politics, at least for a while.

Let's start at the beginning. In case you haven't been following along, the substance of the charge boils down to two quotes, both given to veteran U.S. Middle East policymaker Aaron David Miller in an interview for Miller's 2008 book. They are as follows:

The political reality is that…the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people [on Capitol Hill].

...

I'm a United States senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president. Not a party. Not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Discourage Israel From Attacking Iran?]

Bill Kristol and his Weekly Standard have been running a campaign against Hagel, putting these quotes up in bright lights, and the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens has now piled on with his own accusation of anti-Semitism, suggesting that the dearth of Jewish voters in Nebraska allowed the people of Nebraska to elect Hagel. Twice.

The people trafficking in this nonsense are counting on two things: No one scrutinizing the allegation very hard (since it's so ridiculous) and the moral cowardice of Barack Obama. Let's hope neither of those things works out.

First, it really was all thumbs of Hagel to refer to a "Jewish lobby." Jewish Americans are not monolithic, and many of them disagree on Middle East policy with AIPAC, or the Conference of Presidents, or whomever. Moreover, lots of gentiles agree with AIPAC on Middle East issues. So "Jewish lobby" really is a misnomer. Of course, deploying the more accurate term, Israel lobby, hasn't prevented anyone from having their arguments mischaracterized and being labeled anti-Semitic, so it's not clear why the phrasing matters. One anonymous (of course!) Senate staffer leaking to Kristol's Standard alleged that the Hagel quote really showed that Hagel believes "a nefarious Jewish lobby…secretly controls U.S. foreign policy." Of course, Hagel never said anything like that.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

But let's take the "Jewish lobby" remark on its own terms. The Daily Beast's Ali Gharib, in an old-school journalistic move, picked up the phone and called Miller to find out what he thought about the characterization of Hagel's remark:

I let Miller know by phone that the passage was seized upon to tar Hagel as an anti-Semite. "Seized upon is an understatement," Miller told me. "It was hijacked." In fact, Miller—a Mideast adviser to six Secretaries of State who no one in their right mind could ever call "anti-Israel"—quotes Hagel approvingly. In the passage, Miller noted that few members of Congress are willing to publicly criticize AIPAC or Israel, but there are a few exceptions. "One who is willing is Chuck Hagel, the two-term Republican senator from Nebraska," Miller wrote. "Of all my conversations, the one with Hagel stands apart for its honesty and clarity." The line introducing the one cherry-picked by this Senate aide, and reproduced uncritically by [the Weekly Standard], begins with this statement from Miller: "Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values." I asked Miller if he still viewed Hagel as "pro-Israel." "I don't think there's a Senator of note in the Senate who is not pro-Israel," he responded. "But there is a difference between a special relationship with Israel and an exclusive relationship with Israel. I believe in the former and Chuck Hagel believes the former."

As to the "I'm a United States senator…" quote, Hagel was explaining to Miller why he didn't sign every one of the raft of letters circulated on Capitol Hill by AIPAC. (Even AIPAC officials have made light of the letter-signing ritual. Steve Rosen once cracked to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that he could have the signatures of 70 U.S. senators on a cocktail napkin within 24 hours. Not Hagel's apparently.)

[ Read the U.S. New Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

With the anti-Semitism charge out of the way, you have to wonder what's really driving the opposition to Hagel. By all lights, Hagel does not seem excited about another U.S. war in the Middle East, be it with Syria or with Iran. This view is very much in keeping with the view of the American people, so if you're Kristol or Stephens, you don't want to fight a substantive battle on policy.

But the neocons are not only counting on no one paying too close attention, they're also counting on Obama to fold up like a cheap lawn chair. There's every indication that if Obama nominates Hagel, he'll be confirmed. In the words of Sen. Carl Levin, "If he's nominated, he'd be fine. We all know him up here. He'll be fine." So the neocons are counting on frightening Obama into pulling back the nomination.

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

The important thing for Obama and his people to keep in mind here is that the bark of the neocons is a lot worse than their bite. They tried to paint Obama as a mullah-loving peacenik in the 2012 campaign,and failed miserably. We hear a lot from the neocons here in Washington, partly because the Republicans have been too foolish to marginalize them in the wake of Iraq, and partly because they are supported by lavish sinecures at think tanks and ideological magazines. As Kristol himself remarked in 2005, we were fast approaching a point where " there are going to be more neoconservative magazines than there are neoconservatives."

If Obama stands up to them over Hagel, he'll remind everybody in Washington what the rest of the country knows well enough: There's no reason to care what Bill Kristol thinks.