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On Hagel, GOP Shows True Colors

Roger McCormack, Columnist 

Mitt Romney’s handy defeat in the 2012 presidential election has prompted some soul-searching for the GOP, lest they be relegated, in former President Reagan’s parlance, to the “ash heap of history.”

Immigration, gay marriage and other social issues have been mentioned as issues which, if their positions are revised, could propel the Republicans back to prominence.

Nevertheless, the extreme ideology fueling the party’s foreign policy remains incredibly dominant, and is apparent in the contemptible tactics during the Senate hearings for President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, was nominated as the Pentagon seeks closure in Afghanistan and contends with a potentially smaller budget amidst Washington’s wrangling to avoid massive reductions in spending, otherwise known as the sequester.

It seems obvious that naming a secretary of defense quickly and efficiently would be essential given the increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East, not to mention around the world. However, Senate Republicans remained unmoved, preferring to lick old wounds. Sen. John McCain’s grilling of Hagel over his “nay” vote on the Iraq troop surge is telling, given that the war has ended and other foreign policy exigencies (China, North Korea) are preponderant.

The 2007 surge was described by Hagel as “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam,” though his view has since softened (now he says. “Well, I would wait for the judgment of history to sort that out,” in regards to the surge’s achievements). The present situation on the ground in Iraq comprises rampant political instability, vulnerable minority groups, and rancorous sectarian violence.

This emphatically supports Mr. Hagel’s assertion: “We lost almost 1,200 dead Americans during that surge, and thousands of wounded … Now, was it required? Was it necessary”? Despite his sagacity, Hagel displayed a reticence in the Senate hearings unbecoming of a man asked to make life-and-death decisions for American troops, rejoining, “I’m not prepared to give you a yes or no answer” to McCain’s desire for a sharply defined position concerning the Iraq surge. Still, Hagel’s public career stands as a comfort to anyone desirous of a prudent foreign policy.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, from which he still carries shrapnel, Hagel is a vestige of an age in which conservatism was not wedded to foreign crusades.

A principled dissident, Hagel voted against President Bush’s government-expanding Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind. Declaring “Nothing in my oath of office says that I pledge allegiance to the Republican Party and George Bush,” Hagel has made enemies across vast swaths of his party. Originally voting for the war in Iraq, he later became an outspoken critic, with The New York Times reporting that he called the reconstruction of Iraq “beyond pitiful” and likened U.S. involvement in Iraq to our role in Vietnam.

Today, Hagel may rue the consequences of those decisions, with the Senate hearings offering Republicans a chance for reprisal, given that the neoconservative foreign policy of exporting democracy to the Middle East remains fettered to the GOP. Ted Cruz, Republican senator from Texas, repeatedly called for closer examinations of Hagel’s finances, bleating: “It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”

Hagel had already complied with the necessary financial records he was required to disclose, showing Cruz’s accusation to be both outrageous and specious. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Democrat from Missouri, opined that Cruz “basically came out and made the accusation about money from North Korea or money from our enemies … without a shred of evidence … In this country we had a terrible experience with innuendo and inference when Joe McCarthy hung out in the United States Senate, and I just think we have to be more careful.” This attack was connected to Hagel’s past comments indicating less than zealous support for Israel; he once said there is a “Jewish lobby that intimidates a lot of people up here” (meaning Washington), adding, “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.” Hagel simply underscored the influence pro-Israeli groups have in the United States, with the Christian right contributing heavily alongside Jewish benefactors. While “Jewish lobby” is seen as politically incorrect in contrast with the term “Israeli lobby,” it appears to be more an issue of semantics than what an unnamed Senate aide called “the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.”

Hagel’s additional criticism of Israel offered a précis of the hell visited daily on Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: “There is no justification for Palestinian suicide bombers, but neither is there justification for Israel to keep them locked up like animals.” He has since modified his position, somberly pronouncing regret for his choice of words. This is a shame. A video posted on Mondoweiss, a website devoted to news in the Middle East, documents numerous Israeli soldiers bullying Palestinians at a checkpoint along the West Bank and saying things like, “Animals. Like the Discovery Channel. All of Ramallah is a jungle. The problem is the animals are locked in, they can’t come out. They aren’t humans, we are.”

These checkpoints, which pepper occupied territory on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are seen as a necessity to prevent terrorists from entering Israel. While obviously valid, it does not excuse the behavior of Israeli soldiers to Palestinian civilians, a smattering of racist discourse and gross human rights abuses. Of course, Hamas, the Palestinian organization which engages Israeli militarily, perpetrates egregious attacks on Israel, while ruling the Gaza Strip with fascistic tactics.

These tactics are rightly condemned. It does not follow, however, that criticizing Israeli occupation is a position undertaken only by anti-Semites, given the deleterious tactics employed by many Israeli soldiers on Palestinian civilians. That the right wing is enraged over Hagel’s statements accentuates the fact that criticism of Israel and Palestine are not mutually acceptable positions in the American “mainstream,” though it is a “mainstream” that Hagel’s interrogators have decided upon. Of course, Palestine engenders a microscopic amount of backing across the American political sphere, not just among Republicans.

For example, 96 Senators signed a 2000 resolution in support of Israel; Hagel and three others did not. The accelerated expansion of Israeli settlements (a consequence of Palestine’s request for U.N. recognized statehood), has resulted in the deterioration of an already miasmic situation. The Israeli government’s policy of settlement creates pervasive exploitation, including the demolishment of Palestinian homes, the destruction of Muslim edifices dating to the Ottoman Empire, the confiscation of land used by Palestinians for agriculture, and the virulent employment of physical violence on neighborhoods that are viewed as too “disruptive.” Seven hundred children have been killed since 2005 on occupied territory.

This evidence suggests that Hagel’s shirking from a condemnation of Israeli occupation during the Senate hearings was a capitulation to the dogmatism and arrogance of prevailing U.S. foreign policy. At long last, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham have announced that they will discontinue their blocking of Hagel’s nomination.

This follows a filibuster initiated by Senate Republicans to further delay the confirmation, linking their obstructionism with events in Benghazi, Libya, completely unrelated to Hagel. While this does little to bolster the Republicans’ standing, the lacuna between now and Monday will be the end of the confirmation squabbling, though the proceedings further indicate the dangerousness of entrusting foreign policy-making to a party that is capable of the uncritical, dogmatic loyalty seen in Hagel’s hearings. If nothing else, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense may embrace the ability to chip away at this polarized foreign policy ethos, so easily assumed and relinquished just as arduously.

The introduction of greater nuance into the debate over the Middle East peace process, not to mention holistic American foreign policy, is a vital and indispensable task. The caricature of an inveterately fascistic Palestinian populace is severely undermined by the harsh reality in occupied territory.

Unfortunately, President Obama has failed to denounce Israeli occupation, hedging his bets politically. Hopefully the confirmation of Hagel will lead to a re-evaluation of U.S. foreign policy objectives, perhaps including an ethical requirement countries must fulfill before foreign aid is granted.

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