Media Microscope: Hagelian Dialectics

Allon Lee

US President Barack Obama’s nomination of controversial former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as his next Defence-Secretary excited many local America watchers – with pro-Hagel enthusiasts celebrating his views on Israel, Iran, and Iraq while failing to inform readers of his more problematic stances.

Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald penned a long article comparing pro-Israel voices concerned over Hagel’s nomination to the US gun lobby defending its near absolutist pro-gun rights stance in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre.

“If just a single bully works the neighbourhood, there’s a good chance that his protection racket can hold up. But when another gangster fronts up on the same sidewalks, there’s a risk that the locals will jack up. Maybe American politics is on the cusp of such a revolt…The usually influential gun lobby is being mocked for its absurd defence of the indefensible… Not exactly the time, you’d have thought, for others from the school of hardline lobbying to put their heads above the parapet. But such is the Israel lobby’s campaign against the possible appointment of…Hagel…that its tactics are being likened to those of the National Rifle Association,” Sun-Herald (Dec. 30).

At no point did McGeough acknowledge that opposition to Hagel is coming from a variety of groups for a variety of reasons, nor that the groups generally considered the core of the so-called “Israel Lobby”, such as AIPAC, have not actually taken a stance on his nomination.

Nick O’Malley followed McGeough down the same rabbit hole, writing that “the former Republican senator’s enemies on the right had been busy for weeks traducing him as an anti-Semite and an appeaser” because he was not on the same page as the “neo-conservative establishment,” Age/Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 9).
Tom Switzer argued that Hagel was not anti-Israel and “has won the support of the large and peace-oriented segment of pro-Israel opinion. (He merely attracts the ire of the right-wing Israeli government’s supporters in Washington),” Age/Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 9).

In contrast, Ben Potter correctly noted that Hagel “has also come under attack from across the political spectrum for querying the suitability of an openly gay candidate for a top diplomatic post in the late 1990s,” Australian Financial Review‘s (Jan. 9).
Bret Stephens argued that Hagel’s backers who make a virtue out of his evident “personal courage” during his Vietnam military service, should not confuse that with “political courage”.

“In 1998, when it was politically opportune for Hagel to do so, he bashed Bill Clinton nominee James Hormel for being ‘openly, aggressively gay,’ a fact he said was disqualifying for becoming ambassador to Luxembourg. Late last year, when it was again politically opportune, Hagel apologised for his gay-bashing… In 1999, when the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was broadly popular, Hagel scoffed at the idea of repealing it… His public about-face only occurred when his name made Obama’s shortlist for Secretary of Defence.

In 2002, also when it was overwhelmingly popular, Hagel voted for the resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq… In 2006, when the war in Iraq had become overwhelmingly unpopular, Hagel was on the right side of conventional wisdom [arguing that] ‘The United States must begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal’… the following year, he called the surge ‘the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.’ The surge turned out to be George W. Bush’s finest hour – a genuine instance of political courage as opposed to Hagel’s phony ones… It gave Iraq a decent opportunity to stand on its feet… Again there is no public record of Hagel acknowledging any of this…In 2008 Hagel endorsed engagement with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, and he was especially keen on engagement with Iran, enthusing at one point that ‘Iran had rights for women long before many countries in the world. Women could vote, I actually think before they could vote in America.’ (He’s wrong: Iranian women were enfranchised only in 1963, thanks to the Shah.),” Australian (Jan. 9).

The Australian editorialised on January 11 that Hagel “has won praise from the New York Times – added reason for US senators to grill him closely”.

The editorial concluded by warning that unless the question marks hanging over Hagel’s views are dealt with, the Obama Administration’s “new term will be off to a bad start. A US defence secretary perceived, rightly or wrongly, as antagonistic towards Israel and soft on Iran would be a disaster when the crisis over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions may be approaching its climax.”