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Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal on why the nomination of Chuck Hagel as SecDef is so problematic

Wednesday, January 9, 2013
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HH: Joined now by Bret Stephens. He is the deputy editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal. Bret, Happy New Year, welcome back, thanks for joining us.

BS: Good to be back on the show. Thanks for having me.

HH: How important is the position of secretary of Defense. Since we’re talking about Hagel today, and I opened the show with Bill Kristol, and I’m closing the hour with you, let’s talk about the significance of the job.

BS: Look, it’s obviously, the position is always important. It’s really the second senior ranking cabinet post. But it’s especially important now for two reasons. First, the prospect that we may be looking at radical cuts to the Defense Department’s budget, and secondly, because we are looking at a year of decision with Iran, and a prospective secretary of Defense who is a dream for the Iranian leadership, given his consistent record of opposing any idea of military action against Iran’s nuclear installation. So this is really, for the time being, the most important job there is in the cabinet.

HH: So why do you think the President, who has provoked a fierce political fight, and there are going to be lots of votes against Chuck Hagel. Even if he gets to 51, it won’t be by much. Why did he pick him?

BS: Well, I think there are, look, I think there are two issues here. One is we’re seeing the real Obama. I mean, the first time around, he wanted to pick kind of a team of rivals, you know, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, relatively independent people. Now, we’re getting his people, his worldview into the cabinet. The second thing is I think there was a kind of a macho aspect, Hugh, to be perfectly honest. You know, Susan Rice, the woman he wanted to choose as his secretary of State, went down when her record was well exposed. And I think he just wasn’t going to let that happen to him twice.

HH: Now Chuck Hagel has never been vetted, because a Nebraska Senate race really isn’t even a big state Senate race. It’s just not a place where a lot of the media comes in and begins to dig. We’ve had about two weeks now of vetting of Chuck Hagel. Is it just beginning? Or is it at its end, Bret Stephens?

BS: Well, you know, you never know. I mean, one of the most interesting stories that has appeared, as far as I’m concerned, in the last few days, was from this newspaper called the Algemeiner, which went up and called Jewish sources in Nebraska to ask them about the relationship of Nebraska’s very small Jewish community, I think there are about 6,100 Jewish Nebraskans, with then-Senator Hagel. And it was a fairly frosty, fairly unhappy relationship. The Senator puts together a very long record over 12 years in the Senate, and we’re just about to see, I think, the beginning of it. So I’m going to continue to look at his record. I suspect other journalists are going to be doing the same. And they should, because this is, as I said, a key position at a key moment.

HH: Earlier today, Stephen Hayes posted over at the Weekly Standard, quoting an Obama advisor, that Hagel will bring huge cuts to the military. And the thinking here is that he is cover for what will be a once in a generation, almost back to ’91-’93 level deep cuts into the Department of Defense. Do you agree with that theory, and what is in fact a fear on my part?

BS: Well see, he’s talked about this, and it’s funny, you ask me about his record, and back in the mid or late 1990’s, he was on record as then-fairly conservative Senator from Nebraska, denouncing the Clinton Administration for precisely that reason. So that’s certainly one of the reasons why you have to look at the totality of his record. You know, Hugh, one of the points that I made in my column today is that Chuck Hagel likes to pretend that he is this sort of principled politician willing to speak hard truths against the people in power. I mean, this is part of his shtick, if you will. But the truth is if you look at his record, he always seems to be on the side of the emerging conventional wisdom. That’s a talent that certain people in Washington have, especially when they’re eager to get on the Sunday morning talk shows. And he kind of cornered that market.

HH: Do you think he’s anti-Israel?

BS: Yes, I do. Well, look, put it this way. As far as I’m concerned, he is anti-Israel. And the term pro-Israel is one of those potentially elastic terms. You know, so people can always make the argument well, I’m pro-Israel, I am just against the current Likudnic group of leaders, or I’m pro-Israel, I’m just against X, Y & Z. And so they define pro-Israel in their own light in a way that most supporters of Israel, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, wouldn’t seriously recognize. But I was very struck, in 2002, I was in Israel. I was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. And we were being hit almost every single day by suicide bombings, and that was a moment when I really first took notice of Senator Hagel. He penned an op-ed, I think it was in the Washington Post, basically saying it was at that moment that Israel had to start making concessions to the Palestinians for peace. And I think that’s a real test. You know, the test of a friend is whether he’s with you when you’re down, and Israel was certainly down when we were getting hit day in and day out by suicide bombings. And that’s the moment he thought was opportune to hector Israel on its policies.

HH: I’m talking with Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. He has a column today, Chuck Hagel’s Courage, in the Wall Street Journal. Bret Stephens, do you think he’s actually used the term Jewish lobby? Have we got that pinned down and attributed to him?

BS: Yes. No, I mean, that’s uncontroverted. He told that, he said that with the former diplomat, Aaron David Miller. And you know, there’s a lot of, I’ve been interested in some of the reaction to my column, some people saying come on, give me a break, everyone knows there is a Jewish lobby, and it’s one of the most powerful lobbies out there in Washington. Let me just briefly make two points for the benefit of your listeners, Hugh. First of all, in terms of power, I think the AARP, the NRA, the ethanol lobby, farm lobbies, the lobbies of organized labor in the United States, are vastly, vastly more powerful than the pro-Israel lobby. The second point I want to make is when he speaks about a Jewish lobby, that’s a very, that’s quite a loaded term, because first of all, the overwhelming majority of American support for Israel comes from people who are not Jews.

HH: Hold that thought. When we come back, I want to keep you through the break, because I want to talk a little bit more about this term Jewish lobby. It is a loaded term. It signals a great deal when it’s used, America, and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal and I will explain that for you when we come right back to close out the hour here on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

– – – –

HH: We were talking before the break, Bret, about the term Jewish lobby. Whenever someone calls the radio show, and they get past the screener, and they bring up the USS Liberty, I know I’m dealing with an anti-Semite. Now I’m not sure that the Jewish lobby ranks up there with a reference to the USS Liberty, but it’s close in my dozen years of radio. When people use the term, they want to be understood to be disparaging not Israel, but Jews. What do you think of that?

BS: Right, yeah, well that’s exactly it, because this so-called Jewish lobby is what, presumably means a pro-Israel lobby. That pro-Israel lobby actually consists of probably a dozen groups, some of which are not Jewish at all. Christians United For Israel…

HH: Yup.

BS: …is probably the most powerful in terms of the vote it can generate, probably the most powerful pro-Israel group there is. But the Jewish lobby carries with it the suggestion that the Jews have a way of twisting other people to their will on behalf of their causes. So you often find people saying, not invariably, but often find people saying well, the Jewish lobby is getting us involved in these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on, and why are we giving $3 billion dollars a year to the state of Israel? Nobody mentions, by the way, the expense of our maintaining huge forces in Japan, South Korea, Germany and so on. And nobody mentions the fact, by the way, that I don’t think an American serviceman has ever died in defense of Israel, as opposed to, let’s say, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia and so on. So it’s one of these sort of loaded code words that often get bandied about, and where you sense, and you know, you have to look at that term very carefully. You know, Chuck Hagel fancies himself a man of intellect. And if that’s true, then you have to wonder why he’s using that term.

HH: Now last question, Aaron Jastrow is a character created by Herman Wouk in the War And Remembrance novels, and he had him say about George Santayana that he could smell an anti-Semite in the room. The question is going to come up, is Chuck Hagel anti-Semitic? What sort of evidence convicts on that question, Bret Stephens?

BS: Look, I find, I was very disturbed not only by the reference to the Jewish lobby, but this kind of soliloquy he offered Aaron David Miller, saying I am a United States Senator, I’m not a Senator from Israel. First of all, there are no Senators in Israel.

HH: Right.

BS: So much for his foreign policy expertise. But also, the implicit suggestion that somehow his loyalties are not in question, but the loyalties of other people may be in question. So that’s something that should raise some eyebrows. The real issue is, is he, are his views in sync with those of the majority of Americans, and are they for the benefit of the majority of Americans?

HH: Bret Stephens, we’ll check back as the Hagel nomination proceeds. Thank you, Bret.

End of interview.

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