Is Chuck Hagel Toast?

The attacks on Obama’s would-be Pentagon chief are scurrilous. And yes, Virginia, there is an Israel lobby -- but it’s neither Jewish nor invincible.

In 2006, I interviewed Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, for a book I was writing on America and the Arab-Israeli negotiations. Quotes from that interview have since become part of a campaign opposing his putative nomination as President Barack Obama's next secretary of defense.

That debate and discussion has by any standard been a pretty depressing affair. At the same time, it's a fascinating reflection of both the state of our domestic politics and of attitudes and views toward Israel and Obama.

National Journal's Michael Hirsh reported Sunday that "the White House is now signaling that it may soon puncture Hagel's hopes." We'll see. But since we're in the middle of a movie that could have any number of endings, let me extract a few of the enduring issues highlighted by this affair that I find both troubling and intriguing.

Hagel's an anti-Semite? This charge -- casually leveled at Hagel because he asserted to me that the "Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Congress -- is shameful and scurrilous.

Sadly, accusing someone of hating Jews in general because they criticize Israeli government policy in particular is all too common. In some cases, perhaps it's even true. But not in Hagel's. Hagel spoke to me about shared values and the importance of Israeli security too. And those who have known him over the years, including many of my former colleagues, all believe he feels the same. Independent and at times sharply critical of Israeli policies, yes; someone who has endemic hostility toward Israel, as Rep. Eliot Engel recently charged, let alone whose views are borderline anti-Semitic, no. I like the way Richard Robinson, a Norfolk, Nebraska steel distributor who's Jewish and considers Hagel a very close friend, put it: "I think that anyone who insinuates he's anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is full of crap."

What about that Jewish lobby? What about the use of the term Jewish lobby and Hagel's notion that senators and representatives are reluctant to cross AIPAC? As Israeli political columnist Chemi Shalev points out in his blog post on the matter, Israelis routinely use the word Jewish lobby as synonymous with AIPAC.

Anybody who's been in Washington and not in a coma knows that AIPAC is one of the most effective, well managed, and best organized special interest groups in the country. Indeed, the organization carries formidable political influence and really does define what it means to be pro-Israel on the Hill. And yes, though it's rarely tested, there is the perception in Congress that it's unwise to oppose a pro-Israeli letter, bill, or sense of the Congress resolution. Most legislators have other priorities other than Israel, so fighting with AIPAC over supporting a close American ally just doesn't make sense and can carry real costs.

But recognizing or even bucking political reality isn't being anti-Semitic or hostile to the Israelis. Nor is conceding -- as Hagel does -- that there's not a lot of political courage in Congress on the Israel issue. Let's face it. For a group of 100 pretty smart U.S. senators, there really isn't much debate, nuance, let alone broad disagreement about supporting Israel -- and that's not just because Israel is a very close ally of the United States or that what it does is always in America's interests.

But the issue goes considerably deeper. I don't use the term "Jewish lobby" because it really fails to capture the depth and breadth of support for Israel in America today. Millions of evangelical Christians and non-evangelical Christians support Israel for reasons of eschatology and value affinity. Indeed, if it weren't for the non-Jewish support Israel receives based on the fact that it's in the broadest conception of the U.S. national interest to support like-minded societies -- even those that pursue policies we don't like (see: settlements) -- the U.S.-Israeli relationship would be a shadow of itself.

Even though the Arabs and Iranians are Israel's best talking points in Washington, sorry, conspiracy theorists: There's simply no way 5.5 million American Jews can account for the support Israel receives. It is the image of Israel in the mind of America -- as a democratic, humanistic, pro-Western state worthy of support -- that drives the special relationship. When that perception of shared values and interests changes, so will the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The reaction to Hagel's comments about domestic politics also reflects something else, too: the dishonest debate in America about the role of the pro-Israeli community here.

Israel's supporters want everyone to believe that domestic politics have nothing to do with why America supports Israel; for them, it's all value affinity and Israel as a strategic ally. Israel's detractors want everyone to conclude that domestic politics is just about all there is, and that without the lobby, there wouldn't be a special bond. Neither is true.

The fact is, the pro-Israeli community in America does have a powerful voice, particularly in Congress, but it doesn't have a veto over U.S. policy. And the farther you go from Capitol Hill, the clearer this becomes. Willful presidents with smart strategies trump domestic lobbies every time, whether it's on arms sales or peace initiatives. Indeed, I've long believed that the real Jewish lobby is the Jewish lobby of one -- the effect that an Israeli prime minister can have on a U.S. president. When they can find a way to work together and respect one another's interests, good stuff happens for both America and Israel -- and usually for the Arabs, too.

Is the target Hagel, Obama, or both? The character of the attack on Hagel leads me to question whether or not the real target of the anti-Hagelites is the president. After all, one of the reasons some pro-Israeli detractors don't want Hagel as SecDef is their fear that he would only reinforce Obama's own alleged instincts to be soft on the mullahs and hard on Benjamin Netanyahu. Presumably, that's one reason he's even in the running for the job -- they share similar views on many matters. The president isn't seen as warm and fuzzy when it comes to bonding with Netanyahu or the Israelis. So if Hagel's opponents can indeed sink him, it sends a message on these matters to the White House, too.

Withholder-in-chief: Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran sanctions: Much has been made of Hagel's views on other matters -- talking to Hamas, changing tack on Hezbollah, and questioning the value of sanctions against Iran. On all these issues, Hagel's views are out of synch with current U.S. policy. I disagree with the former senator on all three (and make no mistake, should the nomination move ahead, he'll be pressed on all three).

But we're kidding ourselves if we think Chuck Hagel will be in a position to influence the debate on any of them. As I've written elsewhere, Barack Obama is the most withholding and controlling U.S. president on foreign policy since Richard Nixon. All power on the big and sensitive issues flows in and out of the White House, as John Kerry will discover too. Obama dominates; he doesn't delegate. Don't like what Hagel has to say on Hamas? Not to worry. Unhappy about his views on sanctions? Never mind. His views on this and other matters won't count for much.

Second-term credibility: Finally, what's so intriguing about the Hagel business is that it seems to be part of a broader story. Rarely, if ever, has a president had his top two national security cabinet picks opposed so vehemently before they were even nominated. Susan Rice was forced to withdraw; the same fate may well await Chuck Hagel.

If the White House does pull the plug on Hagel -- the not-quite-yet and maybe-never nominee -- all kinds of conclusions will be drawn. Some will blame it on the neocons and the pro-Israel lobby; others will wonder why the White House didn't do a better job of looking at the former senator's past statements or question why Obama caved and didn't do a Tammy Wynette-style "Stand by Your Man" routine.

For me, the main takeaway of this episode is that a popular second-term president -- one of only 17 in U.S. history -- just isn't as influential as some would like to believe. Even in an area -- national security -- where he's supposed to be fully in command.

The second-term illusion -- that a  president now freed from political constraints of reelection can afford to be bold, tough, and have his way --  remains pretty much that.  Whether it's gun control, the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, or Israeli-Palestinian peace, Obama is in for some very tough fights with Congress and the special interests. That he may go 0 for 2 on his preferred cabinet picks may only be the beginning of the story.

Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Reality Check


Why Hillary Clinton is the Teflon secretary.

Washington can be a cruel and unforgiving place. Want a friend? Harry Truman once said. Get a dog. Or maybe he didn't say it. But it's a good point: In this town, nobody gets a free pass from the press, the pundits, and the pols.

Nobody, that is, until Hillary Clinton. At the end of her tenure as secretary of state, she alone has emerged virtually unscathed -- the lone superstar of the president's first term. A recent poll has her numbers well above the president's and exceeded only by -- you guessed it -- her husband Bill. And those high favorability ratings have remained pretty consistent since 2008.

There's no denying that Clinton has done a very good job as the nation's top diplomat. But to read the media adulation, you'd think she was about to be admitted into the secretary of state Hall of Fame. Google Chairman Eric E. Schmidt introduced her last year as the "most significant secretary of state since Dean Acheson." A New York Times profile earlier this year claimed her legacy was nothing less than the "remaking of American diplomacy in her own fashion."

Unlike Obama, she also appears to have racked up almost no deficits. Nothing seems to stick -- not Benghazi, not Syria, and not the fact that she never managed to lead and succeed on a single consequential foreign policy issue. Last week, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza nailed it: Hillary, he wrote, was "the new Teflon Clinton."

So what is about those Clintons, or at least Hillary, that has made her virtually untouchable -- at least while running Foggy Bottom? What's in the secret sauce? How do we explain the magic touch?

I'm not sure I fully understand it. But here's my best take.

1. Everybody Loves a Star: With the exception of Colin Powell, no secretary of state in American history came to the office with more visibility, fame, fewer asterisks, and more good will than Hillary Clinton. She's even got Thomas Jefferson beat.

After all, how many of the nation's top diplomats had already been in the White House for eight years, missed being her party's presidential nominee by a hair, and had a readymade fan base of as many as 18 million Americans who cast votes for her in the primaries before she even settled into the State Department's 7th floor?

Add to this a dash of the bipartisanship that allows the secretary of state -- alone among the key cabinet posts -- to transcend politics, throw in a husband who remains the best politician in America today, and you have a recipe for success.

2. Work Hard, and Don't Forget the Charm: By all accounts, Hillary Clinton applied the same approach toward Foggy Bottom as she did toward her Senate career. Work hard, master your brief, and try not to shine too brightly and offend others gratuitously without just purpose or cause.

Her capacity to master her brief and those cumbersome briefing books is legendary. What's more, she knows what she knows and isn't afraid or embarrassed to find out what she doesn't.

I had one personal experience with her as first lady that confirms it. Dennis Ross, then the State Department's special envoy for the Middle East, and I accompanied her to the funeral of Leah Rabin, the wife of assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 2000. This was largely a ceremonial trip -- and yet she insisted on using the flight over to engage in a detailed discussion of Israeli politics and Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

Hillary's persistence continued once we landed: At each of our meetings in Israel, she insisted on introducing us as if we were somehow of equal rank and importance. She has that Clinton touch, the capacity to connect and to make people feel that they matter and are worth investing in. Madeleine Albright, another strong secretary of state, once quipped to me during the Camp David summit that President Clinton ought to add Hillary to the negotiating team so that we might have a better chance to seal the deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

3. Be a Team Player ... and Very Careful: Hillary's political skills have been on display for years -- how she's managed to gain such a stellar reputation as a great secretary of state is another matter. The accomplishments don't justify the hype: She's been a loyal and pretty effective implementer of what the president wanted, but hasn't taken many risks or led on any big issues.

Her legacy has three parts: She has promoted a kind of 21st-century planetary humanism, consisting of women's rights, LGBT issues, press and Internet freedom, and the environment. She has reorganized and fought for resources for the State Department. And she has relentlessly traveled the globe to improve her nation's image -- and while she hasn't been successful everywhere (see: the Middle East), she has won enough victories in enough places to mend some of the disaster that was the George W. Bush presidency.

All of this is fine, but none of it gets her into the company of some of her more illustrious predecessors, like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, or James Baker. And forget comparing her to the giants -- George Marshall and Dean Acheson. When it comes to issues of war and peace, or matters of high strategy, she really hasn't left a mark.

To be fair, this isn't all Hillary's fault. Barack Obama -- the most withholding foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon -- hasn't delegated any major issues to her either.

But here's the paradox: I think Hillary made a choice early on to keep her head down on the most contentious issues and find her own niche. The president wants to dominate and not delegate? Let him. All of the consequential issues -- Iran, Syria, Israeli-Palestinian peace -- seemed like losing bets anyway, fraught with the risk of tarnishing her political star. She found her role in the play -- not the lead, to be sure -- and filled it brilliantly.

(It's also worth noting, ahem, that the issues she did own all had safe domestic political resonance and could be useful for building coalitions and constituencies should she decide to make another run for the Oval Office.)

As she winds down her term, Hillary Clinton does not have any spectacular successes to call her own -- but she has no spectacular failures, either. On Libya, she was willing to fall on her sword, but Susan Rice fell on hers instead. (Why Hillary didn't sign up to read those famous talking points that fateful Sunday isn't clear. Maybe she took one look at them and decided to steer clear.) On Syria, it's the president who seems to be taking the heat for not doing more. And on Israel, it's again Obama who's seen to be in a face-off with Bibi.

4. A President in Waiting: The last secretary of state to ascend directly to the presidency was James Buchanan. And there's a reasonable chance that within a few short years, we may witness another such political passage. Indeed, the president-in-waiting trope may well provide a partial clue as to why nobody really wants to cross her.

Everyone in Washington knows Hillary's run may not be over. So what's the point in taking her on? Key Republicans seem to like her. Listen to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is no fan of the president's foreign policy: "She is extremely well respected throughout the world, handles herself in a very classy way and has a work ethic second to none."

Nor do the reporters who travel with her have a stake in making enemies. Back in the day, I was on many of those trips: The quarters are close, and your access depends on not pissing people off. It's just too uncomfortable to travel with a secretary of state and their staff if you do. And besides, if you really start being tough, you may not make the access list back home.

Finally, let's be clear. She shines because not that many others do. We face a galactic leadership deficit in America today. There are plenty of celebrities, to be sure. But not that many politicians with substance, charisma, and class.

Hillary simply doesn't have much competition -- aside from perhaps Michelle Obama, whose favorability ratings top Hillary's and the president's too.

So stick with the playbook, Hillary. You may actually be a star. And in an age of dashed expectations, disappointment, and rising cynicism toward America's political class, that's no small accomplishment.