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What Is the Hagel Fight “Really” About?

Aaron David Miller makes the case [1] that the anti-Hagel campaign is ultimately just an anti-Obama campaign:

That’s why I think that the Hagel affair really isn’t about Chuck Hagel.

This is really a fight about Barack Obama. It is being driven by three somewhat overlapping constituencies — a pro-Israel community that doesn’t trust the president, a Republican party and a neoconservative elite struggling unsuccessfully to define its own foreign policy identity, and finally, a party in opposition that is determined to remind Obama that, reelected or not, he doesn’t have a free hand.

On one level, Miller is correct. Strident opposition to a presidential nominee is opposition to the president, and many of Hagel’s critics insist on interpreting the selection as confirmation of views that they have frequently and wrongly attributed to Obama. Republican hawks have been railing against a fantasy Obama record for four years, so I suppose it’s inevitable that they would subject one of his Cabinet nominees to the same treatment. Hard-liners convinced that Obama wants to preside over American decline look at Hagel, impute views to Hagel that he doesn’t have, and then say, “Yes, just as we thought, Obama wants to preside over decline.” “Pro-Israel” hawks in the GOP have been pushing the idea that Obama doesn’t support Israel enough since before he was elected, so naturally they will claim that Obama is “revealing” his “real” views by associating him with the distortions of Hagel’s record they are circulating. One nonsensical criticism informs the other.

It’s also true that Hagel is encountering resistance from his own party because Obama appointed him, but it’s equally true that Hagel would never have been given a Cabinet post in a McCain or Romney administration. It’s easy to imagine that a Republican-appointed Hagel would face just as much hostility from the same critics, but it’s very difficult to imagine that a Republican would appoint him to a comparable position in the first place (in part because of the sway Hagel’s critics still have inside the party). Yes, Hagel’s critics are going after Hagel in large part to inflict damage on Obama, but they would not have thrown such a fit over the other possible nominees for Defense, and they have shown no interest in targeting Kerry despite the fact that he will be the one carrying out Obama’s foreign policy. There’s no getting around the fact that this controversy is primarily one about Hagel.

The anti-Hagel campaign is partly a case of sour grapes over losing the election, but it’s also being done as payback to strike at Hagel for his past criticisms of Republican hawks. Hagel’s critics believed that his nomination would make it easier to split off Democrats in the Senate and hand Obama an early setback, but something close to the opposite has occurred. As Pat Buchanan observed [2] in his new column, the Hagel nomination set up Republican hawks for a no-win scenario:

If Hagel is confirmed, Republican resistance will have been routed. If Hagel is rejected, the Republican Party will be damaged in the eyes of many for having trashed a patriot, war hero and friend of veterans who put America first and wanted no more unnecessary wars.

The problem for Republican hawks in this case is that they didn’t understand that there was no way for them to win this contest, and so they launched their assault on Hagel anyway.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "What Is the Hagel Fight “Really” About?"

#1 Comment By Garland On January 15, 2013 @ 1:33 pm


#2 Comment By HyperIon On January 15, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

You wrote: The problem for Republican hawks in this case is that they didn’t understand that there was no way for them to win this contest

Why didn’t they understand?
Could they be blinded by ideology?
If Buchanan can see this (an uber hawk after all), why can’t they?

#3 Comment By SDS On January 15, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

The Hagel fight is about Hagel associating with THAT party’s president….The neo-cons don’t care about policy; only being against the Democrats…. after all; the health mandate was a Republican idea; if I remember correctly; but they had to drop it after Obama took to it….

Hagel made the fatal mistake of thinking he could make a difference for the country; not the party.

#4 Comment By Ray On January 15, 2013 @ 2:47 pm


Buchanan is about as far from an “uber-hawk” as one gets these days…

#5 Comment By Clint On January 15, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

The opposition to Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel and the free pass to Secretary of State nominee John Kerry is the crux of matter.

Moshe Phillips,
“When it comes to criticizing Democrats who are hostile to Israel the Jewish elites have a history of weakness. From Jesse Jackson to Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama Democrats are treated with kid gloves and given the benefit of the doubt…
Even Kerry’s failure to sign the December 20, 2012 letter in support of continuing sanctions against Iran has not been a matter of concern for pro-Israel activists. And this even though 73 of Kerry’s fellow senators signed the letter.”

#6 Comment By AZS On January 15, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

Garland wrote “Israel.”

In a word, yes.

Off topic but Hyperion are you Romanian?

#7 Comment By Andrew On January 15, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

There’s no getting around the fact that this controversy is primarily one about Hagel.

And the strategic shift in military and geopolitical posture, which (was) is inevitable. Hagel in some (not all) ways embodies this shift.

#8 Comment By Lev On January 15, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

@Clint: What? Sheldon Adelson spent millions in Florida and elsewhere attacking Obama on Israel. It accomplished nothing. Most Jews aren’t single-issue Israel voters or hard-liners at all. The complaints have been aired extensively, it’s just that Jewish voters’ views don’t correspond with what Republican hawks want them to be.

#9 Comment By Clint On January 15, 2013 @ 5:59 pm


You just proved Moshe Philips point.

Thank you.

#10 Comment By James Canning On January 15, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

Clint- Elements of the Israel lobby worked very hard indeed, to bring about the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980.
They wanted to punish hin for forcing Israel out of the Sinai.

#11 Comment By Myron Hudson On January 15, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

I believe the fight is about about the neocons’ grasping to retain credbility and relevance. Hmm… I guess that actually parallels what Daniel says about nailing him for past criticism.

#12 Comment By Scottinnj On January 15, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

I wouldn’t underestimate that the pass for Kerry in no small part is due to desire to run Brown for Kerry’s seat.

#13 Comment By Garland On January 15, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

It would be amusing to see Brown and Warren serving together. I like to think he’d keep the faux-Amerindian cracks coming their whole careers. Although they’d probably end up voting identically.

As Bill Kristol said, “Bush before Kerry, but Kerry before Buchanan.” It’s not partisanship, it’s not Obama, it’s Israel.

#14 Comment By Clint On January 15, 2013 @ 10:09 pm


Elements of The Israel Lobby are Jews, Christian Zionists and Neoconservatives and Reagan only got 39 percent of the Jewish-American vote.

Obama got 69 percent of the Jewish-American vote to Romney’s 30 percent.

Thank for also making Moshe Phillips’ point.

#15 Comment By in the smoke On January 16, 2013 @ 10:31 am

The Hagel fight is primarily about whether Israel will get what it wants from the US military and taxpayer. No question about it, really.

(An objection: your use of “Republican hawks” in connection with this subject is inapt. I am a Republican hawk who thinks that the resources, expertise and focus lavished on Israel and its problems have come at a grievous strategic cost. There are many who think as I do, particularly in the military and intelligence. Those who know the most – who research, analyze and actually serve – have been deeply concerned about this for a very long time. The weak links are elected Republican politicians, who are susceptible to corruption by campaign donors and to the punishment/rewards system of lobby media.)

#16 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On January 17, 2013 @ 11:17 am

I think the reason Hagel is facing such resistance and Kerry is not should be obvious. Hagel, as a Republican, is viewed as a traitor; Kerry, as a Democrat, is not. This is best seen as a warning to Republicans not to dissent on foreign policy.