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January 31, 2013

Chuck Hagel, Israel, and American Power

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Most of the debate over the Hagel nomination has focused on his views regarding Israel, and understandably so. The United States has a long history of strong support for the Jewish state. That policy has expressed itself in material aid to Israel, close partnership with the Israelis on defense and intelligence, public support for Israel’s basic strategy in dealing with the Palestinians, a clear if unspoken guarantee of Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state, and consistent action to protect it from further international isolation and to lower the level of risk that it faces in the region.

To be sure, the policy has not been without its ups and downs. In particular, America has tried to keep enough distance from Israel so that the United States can be an honest broker in settling the details of a peace agreement based on the two-state framework, should such an agreement ever really become possible. But the basic direction of America’s approach to Israel has been clear, and clearly understood by the world, since the Reagan administration at least, and it was affirmed numerous times by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Senator Hagel over the years has made comments that may have been intended to, and at any rate did, signal that his views on Israel are not in the mainstream. The question is not whether those comments mean Senator Hagel is an anti-Semite. They don’t, and he isn’t. The question is whether he supports the policy, what he wants to replace it with if he doesn’t, and what his nomination means about the views of the president.

There are powerful moral reasons for supporting Israel. It arose out of the ashes of the Holocaust, which was, in a real sense, the collective responsibility of the West. In the 1930s, there were two kinds of countries with respect to Jews: places where they weren’t allowed to stay, and places where they weren’t allowed to go. Most of those trapped in Europe were eventually killed. Israel was created in the aftermath as a kind of safety valve against further persecution of the Jews, and it has served that purpose well. In the 1990s, about 700,000 Jews emigrated from Russia to Israel.

But there are other important reasons for supporting Israel. The United States has a vital national interest in preventing any aggressive, anti-American power or combination of powers from dominating the Middle East, which is why Operation Desert Storm was fought in 1990–91. To that extent, Israel’s interests converge with those of the United States. Israel is a stable democracy, an important partner in intelligence and defense operations, and a hedge against Iranian hegemony. If Israel didn’t already exist as an ally, the United States would be trying to invent an ally like her.

Senator Hagel may believe that America’s support for Israel is the reason for the hostility in the region toward the United States. If so, he is seriously mistaken. The radical regimes and movements in the region have a forthright agenda: expelling the influence of Western culture from the Muslim world and creating extremist governments that will impose their version of sharia law. The United States is a major target of that agenda because America represents to them the culture of the West. Israel is a minor part of that agenda at most — a distraction that they trot out to shift the focus from their actions and failures. The authoritarian, non-radicalized governments in the Middle East are much more concerned about Iranian hegemony, their own ambitions, and their domestic affairs than they are about Israel.

The United States has fought two wars in the Middle East over the past 20 years — three, if Libya is counted. None of them was about Israel.

In fact, to the extent the United States is seen as abandoning Israel, it would tend to erode our position in the region. Everyone in the Middle East respects consistency and strength. American policies that undermine Israel, no matter what excuses are offered on their behalf, would be seen as weakness and provoke further challenges to the United States.

The Obama administration has been less supportive of Israel than any administration in recent memory; that certainly has not pacified the region, and it has not prevented a wave of attacks against American embassies and nationals.

America’s guarantee of Israeli security has sustained an equilibrium in the Middle East that deters conflict. If the Obama administration distances itself further from Israel, it may lead others to believe that Israel can be overthrown by violence. An attack against Israel by other nation states is unlikely, but an increase in terrorism, sabotage, or missile or rocket attacks is not. That may happen anyway if Iran gets nuclear capability, but it will be worse if the world doubts America’s commitment to come to Israel’s aid.

Whatever much of the rest of the world believes, Israel thinks it has a right to exist. The Israelis will not sit idly by while their people are attacked. They will try to respond in a measured way, but without confidence that America “has their back,” as President Obama put it last year, they could make a misjudgment, and the situation could spin out of control. Israel already has nuclear weapons; if Iran acquires them as well, the last thing America needs is escalating conflict in the Middle East.

In short, there are powerful reasons — going to the heart of America’s vital national interests — why presidents of both parties have been careful to support Israel so consistently and so publicly, though not unconditionally.

Senator Hagel is a smart man and a patriot. He will have the chance to explain his views at his confirmation hearing. Perhaps his past comments about Israel indicate frustration that does not reflect his true attitude toward American support for that nation. If so, he needs to show an understanding that as secretary of defense he would not have the same latitude to speak impulsively that he had as a senator. If, on the other hand, he believes that a different policy toward Israel would better serve American security, he owes it to the country and the president he wants to serve to make his position clear in strategic terms.

One final point: The military establishment Senator Hagel wants to lead has been in a state of decline for many years. It is desperately in need of recapitalization and reform. The defense cuts of the last two years have made the situation vastly worse, and the “sequester” due to go into effect in a few weeks would be a final blow to military readiness. According to Admiral Thomas Coleman, commander of the surface fleet, the Navy is already becoming a “hollow force.”

Senator Hagel ought to explain what he will do to ensure that the military does not continue to be the scapegoat of Washington’s budget crisis. Otherwise it won’t matter what his or the president’s attitude is toward the Middle East or anywhere else. No foreign policy will protect Israel, or America, without the power to back it up.

— Jim Talent is a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation specializing in military affairs.

First appeared in National Review.

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