Congressional monitors, members of the media and others have observed that the level of partisan rancor in Washington is as high as it’s ever been in the modern era. Bitter public fights over spending limits, the healthcare bill, economic stimulus packages and the overall legislative agenda have all worked to reinforce that argument. The degree of partisanship has contributed to the politicization of “support for Israel” — formerly an issue that commanded broad support from Democrats and Republicans. The participation of Israel’s prime minister in lobbying on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate strengthened the tendency. And the recent Israel-related fight over the confirmation of Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense has seen it develop into a deepening cleft.
American presidents typically possess the prerogative of deciding whom to appoint to cabinet-level positions within their administrations. The norm is one real manifestation of the American “checks and balances” system of governance whereby the executive, legislative and judicial branches are co-equal and sometimes adversarial. The subordination of a presidential pick to congressional politicking begins to violate that balance. For that reason, the congressional confirmation process is generally procedural and the president’s choice almost always prevails. Or, as the New York Times explains, “even in the current political environment, a president’s nominee with a Senate pedigree is supposed to have an inside track to confirmation.”
For that reason, the Republican decision to delay a vote on the confirmation of Senator Chuck Hagel — the Department of Defense nominee — is truly extraordinary. While Hagel has since been confirmed, the Republican act of defiance is even more notable because it comes in the service of the Israel lobby which regards Hagel as ‘insufficiently pro-Israel.’
In the past month the former senator from Nebraska has been vilified by members of his own party (he served as a Republican). Unnamed congressional staffers have attempted to portray him as unqualified, when in reality he only suggested that Israel constrain its colonization of the West Bank. The Council of Foreign Relations’ Elliott Abrams even called him “anti-Semitic” on National Public Radio.
The unrestrained and unsubstantiated attacks on Hagel carry implications for the Israel lobby and the US more broadly. The non-political elements of the American government and foreign-policy apparatus — in other words, members of the State Department and Department of Defense — will see their credibility in international forums and bilateral meetings diminished.
The perception that American policy-making and execution are coordinated and efficient began to suffer with the bungled Iraq fiasco, as described by the likes of former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman. Now the dignity of executive branch representatives is being similarly assailed and the effectiveness of those representatives will be diminished by it. One consequence of the undignified conduct at the Hagel hearings is that the Israel lobby, which historically thrived through its use of tactics designed to silence critics (a charge once highlighted by Hagel himself) has now been fully understood by a large segment of the American public. Any claim that a coordinated effort does not exist to steer and manage US policy on issues such as settlements and Iran is demonstrably false in light of the Hagel hearings. That the Israel lobby is so powerful, and that it works brazenly to align US policy with the policies of the Israeli government, is now an incontestable fact in Washington.
Another consequence of the public vilification of the former senator from Nebraska is that his tenure at the Department of Defense will likely be marked by a lack of faith in his subordinates. Or, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows notes through a quote attributed to a Republican senator’s former staff member, “It will be more important for a Secretary who will have to impose budget reductions and other policy changes on the services to show he’s not just a nice, thoughtful guy. He’ll need to show people in the Pentagon he can’t be taken advantage of — and also that he’s strong enough to stick up for them should they come under political attack. My sense is that Hagel didn’t clear that bar.”
In other words, Hagel may now be so damaged by the confirmation hearings, that he will struggle to effectively manage the Department of Defense, never mind the Chinese military.
Whether the Israel lobby’s active effort to sabotage the future Secretary of Defense’s effectiveness carries further consequences is an open question. And it remains to be seen whether members of the American foreign policy establishment will openly begin to challenge the Israel lobby’s influence on national security policy — and how their elected officials will react if they do.
Ahmed Moor is a master of public policy candidate at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government