We're hearing different things about Chuck Hagel, and the reasons for his appointment as Obama's Secretary of Defense..
•Clips of his comments about the power of the Jewish lobby, the Palestinians being chained down, and the damage to the standing of the US due to excessive support of Israel
•Comments expressing caution--perhaps in the extreme--with respect to using military power to deal with threats
•Hagel has been among those questioning, and voting against sanctions directed at Iran's nuclear ambitions, and insisting that negotiation is the appropriate option
•That his appointment was Barack Obama's revenge directed against Netanyahu's support of Mitt Romney
•Expectations that Obama's vengence will bring forth another dose of Netanyahu's, directed at convincing enough Senators to vote against the appointment
•That Israel is a minor issue in the appointment and intentions of Hagel and Obama. The real purpose, by this view, is to cut drastically into the various military contractors, especially those that have supplied personnel to do much of the work traditionally assigned to soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. And while opposition to the appointment may be expressed as support for Israel, it will really reflect the power of the contractors seeking to defend their profits, and the employment opportunities they supply to various states and locales in the US
Both Hagel and Obama have asserted the importance of the relationship between the United States and Israel, which they say is a crucial ally in a problematic region.
Individuals like Hagel. with long records of speaking and acting in the public sphere, provide materials for those with various motives to oppose an appointment to a significant post, as well as for those who genuinely worry about the candidate's actions in that post.
Has Obama appointed a pacifist to the position of Defense Secretary?
Or an individual sobered by the human costs of war, and sincerely concerned to use military force only as a last resort?
If the latter describes Hagel, he can point to numerous Israeli military and security personnel with long experience at senior positions who express themselves in similar terms. The most recent Israeli military activities, i.e., the brief but impressive uses of force in Lebanon 2006, Gaza 2009 and 2012, all without aspiring to final solutions of difficult problems, suggest that a Hagel-like concern to avoid all out war is something that Israel's ranking generals and politicians learned the hard way, before Hagel appeared on their screens.
After Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is time that the US learned the same lesson. Hopefully, that is what Obama and Hagel are doing.
Note the use of "hopefully." This is one of those delicate moments when limited information about intentions makes judgment difficult.
No doubt activists concerned to support Israel, and activists concerned to support the employment and the profits associated with defense contractors, but perhaps saying their concern is with Israel, will produce exciting moments of tension during Senate hearings and floor debate, with no certainty of confirmation, rejection, or eventual withdrawal of Hagel's candidacy in the face of strong opposition.
The United States, and especially those supporting a George W. Bush style of using the military as a decisive tool to deal with problems likely to be insoluble, deserve at least a moment of sober reflection. Deposing Saddam Hussein was dramatic, marked with iconic pictures, shown time and again, of his statue being toppled and ultimately his hanging. It cost several thousand American lives, and an unknown number of Iraqis, mostly killed by other Iraqis when the strong and cruel government was no more, and the country's ethnic and religious rivalries were set free to wreck havoc on one another. Estimates range from a hundred thousand to over a million deaths, along with many more lives affected by injury or flight. Some see signs of incipient stability and a lessening of the carnage, but explosives in mosques, markets, and alongside government buildings, sometimes associated with suicides, continue to increase the toll.
Is the outcome, still unknown, worth the cost in human life and suffering? Similar numbers associated with killings in Rwanda and elsewhere have brought forth the Holocaust label, and demands that people responsible be tried as war criminals.
The weight of the United States in world politics may keep George W. Bush and American generals safe from the worries that have concerned Israeli officials and military personnel, against whom charges have been brought in various courts due to Lebanon and Gaza, where casualties were a tiny fraction of those in Iraq, and where Israel was responding to direct attacks on its soil.
Could Hagel's appointment reflect at least a bit of soul searching at the highest levels of the American government?
This note is not an endorsement of anything close to pacifism, and it comes with the hope that neither Hagel nor Obama are anywhere close to that foolish aspiration. The world remains a difficult place. Islam is a serious problem, no matter what governmental leaders are led to say, either in sincerity or by way of lip service. Islam is currently led, in significant measure, by individuals who preach the most vicious hatred and threats, especially against Jews but also against Christians, and against Muslims who do not follow extreme interpretations of Islamic traditions.
Dealing with what threatens the civilizations constructed in Israel, Western Europe, the United States and elsewhere demands steadfast opposition to the extreme aspirations of the madness afoot in this region, most prominently but not only in Iran. What the United States did and unleashed in Iraq made things worse.
The answer is not to abandon the option of force on account of naive assumptions about the universality of decent human nature, but neither is it to rush to an all-out war in the hope that destruction can bring about the same universality of decency.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem