What's Really Behind the Hagel Fight

Let's face it: This battle is about Obama, not his would-be secretary of defense.

The more I watch the soap opera that surrounds Chuck Hagel's nomination for defense secretary -- and there are more episodes to come -- the more I wonder if he's really the main event.

Sure, the former senator is an outspoken maverick who has angered fellow Republicans, said some things that upset the pro-Israel community, taken positions on Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran that were out of sync with U.S. policy, and driven the neocons crazy in general.

But my sense is that the real subtext in this melodrama is about more than the questions Hagel's detractors have raised: Is he qualified for the job? Is he endemically hostile to Israel? Is he going to emasculate the U.S. military, in which he proudly served, and willfully weaken the defenses of a country he deeply loves?

These are questions to which the answers are already clear: yes, no, and no. The hearings before the Armed Services Committee will give Hagel an important opportunity to defend himself and explain his beliefs about U.S. national security. And unless he makes some self-inflicted gaffe, he's likely to make it through the confirmation process.

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.

Obama, Israel, and American Jews

Hagel's support for a special relationship with Israel -- but not an exclusive one, where Israeli policies are above scrutiny and criticism -- is really how Obama feels too. Hagel articulates on Israel what Obama cannot -- a frustration with some of Israel's policies and a belief that the United States needs to exhibit more balance and show greater sensitivity to Palestinian and Arab concerns.

Like Obama, Hagel isn't an enemy of a Jewish state, let alone, as some of his detractors have charged, a hater of Jews. But he's clearly not emotional or emotive when it comes to Israel either.

Obama is the first U.S. president who doesn't think the Israelis are cowboys and the Palestinians are Indians. He was only six at the time of Israel’s stunning victory during the six day war and likely internalized little of the David vs. Goliath tropes relating to Israel and the Arabs. (If anything, he emerged with the opposite image of Israel as the mighty power occupying the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinians as David.) And unlike Hagel, Obama didn't grow up in a political environment where being "strong on Israel" mattered much for most of his political career.

All of this is reflected and exacerbated by the ongoing melodrama of his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rightly or wrongly, the mutual impressions have been fixed: Netanyahu believes the president is insensitive -- even bloodless -- about Israel's fears and concerns, and the president thinks the prime minister is a con man who operates with a wanton disregard for American interests.

Four years in with another four to go, it's clear to all but the interminably obtuse that these two just don't get along. And there's growing unease in the Jewish community and in Israel that tensions may rise further, as Obama looks toward his legacy and Netanyahu is pulled rightward by even more hardline members of a new coalition.

So much of the opposition to Hagel flows from this dynamic. If the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu weren't so dysfunctional, I bet the concern about this would-be defense secretary wouldn't be nearly as acute.

Republicans in Search of a Foreign Policy

I'm betting too that a good part of the opposition to Hagel comes from Republicans who are frustrated that they can't identify a new foreign policy approach for their party, and who are very unhappy about the one the president is following. This malaise is orchestrated by neoconservatives who wax nostalgic for the good old days of Ronald Reagan's principled but practical approach to foreign policy. (They can't be pining away for the Bush 43 years, can they?)

That the Republican Party is at sea on foreign policy grates the party leadership for two reasons. First, Obama's approach has essentially stolen pages from the Republicans' playbook: He's morphed into a less ideological, more disciplined version of George W. Bush -- keeping Gitmo open, escalating the drone war, surging troops into Afghanistan, toughening sanctions on Iran.

And second, Obama has borrowed from the Republican realism of the George H.W. Bush administration: He has avoided risky and open ended military campaigns, valued multilateral diplomacy, and always made sure that he had the means to carry out his ends.

What Obama has abandoned is the Republican crusader sprit of aggressively championing American values -- muscular interventions, turning American policy into a morality play of good against evil, and touting the American exceptionalism of the Iraq years. And worse, the American public seems to have embraced Obama's policies as the right course for the times.

Hagel is the poster child for this realism. As a Republican renegade who supported the Iraq war and then turned against it, he is a man the crusaders love to hate. He is a decorated combat veteran with a mind of his own, with an interest perhaps in trimming the Pentagon's budget -- a man who will urge caution and deliberation before projecting military force abroad and who believes in trying diplomacy first (with Iran, for instance) before going to war.

And for key Republicans like Sen. John McCain, that's frustrating in the extreme. Not only can't the Republicans identify a foreign policy issue that separates them in a practical way from the Democrats, the world seems inhospitable for grand rescue operations. (see: Syria, Iran, the Arab winter, and Afghanistan.)

Opposing Hagel is a political and philosophical imperative for the Republican Party, which has lost its footing in foreign policy and can't find an effective way to attack the president's. But whether Republicans can use the Hagel confirmation hearings to showcase their new approach, or whether they will simply fall back on their old habits, remains to be seen.

We're Still Here

Finally, opposing Hagel is mandatory station identification.

Obama is only one of 17 U.S. presidents to be elected to a second term (and only 14 served out the entire eight years). And yet, you'd hardly know it. Whatever mandate or electoral bounce normally accrues to second-term presidents, this one seems more alone and powerless than ever.

Obama's clear choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice, took herself out of the running because of Republican and Democratic pressure over Benghazi. The grand deal for avoiding the fiscal cliff collapsed. The president's candidate for defense secretary is facing a tough nomination fight -- and whether it's gun control, the debt ceiling, or immigration reform, Obama will face other tough fights from Republicans who want to remind him that he can't have his way without their cooperation and support.

The threat to Hagel may have diminished somewhat, with influential New York Sen. Chuck Schumer announcing his support. But what if he doesn't make it through?

I really admire Hagel's service, his guts, and his view that when it comes to using American military power the fact that we can doesn't always mean we should. I think he's just what the doctor ordered these days.

Still, I won't believe the sky is falling if Hagel isn't confirmed or that it would mean a catastrophic defeat for Obama and for U.S. foreign policy or a validation that the neoconservatives and pro-Israeli community are now 10 feet tall. The fact is, as we saw with Susan Rice, the White House will find a suitable fallback. Indeed, as Charles de Gaulle implied in his comment that the cemeteries of France are filled with indispensable people, nobody really is. Nobody, that is, except perhaps Barack Obama, the most controlling foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon. It's likely that Obama will make all the key decisions on foreign policy during the next four years -- with or without Chuck Hagel at his side.

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Reality Check

The Three-State Solution

Are we witnessing a historic shift toward Palestinian unity? Don't bet on it.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians rally in Hamas-controlled Gaza to celebrate the anniversary of Fatah's founding. Thousands more in the Fatah-controlled West Bank cheer on Hamas. The Palestinian public yearns for unity -- and once again Egyptians are talking about a reconciliation conclave in Cairo within two weeks.

What's going on? Could we be witnessing a historic shift toward Palestinian unity? Is there finally a basis for a meaningful Hamas-Fatah deal that might bind up the self-inflicted wounds of the Palestinian people and strengthen their leverage -- if not in negotiations with Israel, then at least in the PR battle against it?

Not likely.

Yes, Israel throws up plenty of obstacles to peace -- its settlements expansion in the West Bank is a big one. But on the Palestinian side, the greatest challenge remains the pesky problem of Noah's Ark. Simply put, the Palestinian national movement has been too successful: It has two of everything -- constitutions, mini-states, security services, funding streams, and patrons.

The absence of a monopoly, or anything close to it, over guns, people, and negotiating positions is the single greatest threat the Palestinians face to the fulfillment of their own aspirations.

And here's the kicker. Even if real unity were achieved, it would likely leave the peace process worse off -- in large part because neither Israel nor the United States would likely accept the new parameters of a Palestinian entity that included Hamas for negotiating a two-state solution.

The idea of unity resonates powerfully within Palestinian society. It's a major psychological blow to see your national movement at war with itself while the real adversary -- Israel -- exploits your weaknesses and divisions.

And yet, the Palestinian national movement has always been divided. Yasir Arafat used to tell us that it was really Palestinian democracy in action. And to a degree, given the challenges Arafat faced -- managing a fractious movement that lacked a secure territorial base and was vulnerable to manipulation by Arab states and Israel -- a decentralized structure was inevitable. Unlike other national movements, such as Algeria's FLN or even the pre-state Zionist underground, there was never a watershed moment when one faction imposed its will on the others.

There was a price to be paid for this lack of control. In June 1990, the United States suspended its dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization when a small Iraqi-backed group launched an attack against Israel that Arafat refused to condemn.

But Arafat was able to manage this gaggle through his iconic stature in the Palestinian national movement. Beginning with the 2000 intifada, however, as Fatah began to split and smaller offshoots like the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and Islamists began to run their own operations, his authority began to wane. His death in 2004, the corruption in Fatah, the inability to end the occupation, and the rising power of Hamas made a mockery of the idea of a unified Palestinian national movement.

The Palestinian Humpty Dumpty had finally fallen off the wall. And since Hamas's 2007 takeover of Gaza, there have been at least four unsuccessful efforts to put it back together again. Here's why unity efforts keep falling short -- even while all Palestinians say they desperately want them to succeed.

Neither Hamas nor Fatah is really serious: Unity is again being driven by tactical considerations, not by a sincere desire to unify ranks. Hamas's successful rocket attacks against Israel and Abbas's success in winning observer-state status at the United Nations allows each to come to the table with some leverage.

But the impulse to do so is driven far more by public opinion and Egyptian pressure than by any real desire to pay the price for what a real merger would entail. Hamas isn't going to give up the gun and recognize Israel -- and Abbas knows that his whole reason for being, not to mention his international support, will evaporate if he signs on to a hard-line program.

The differences are enormous: The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation accord signed in May 2011was never implemented -- nor is it, or anything like it, going to be.

Hamas is the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism; Fatah represents a more centrist, secular version. But the issues that divide them aren't just about seats in a parliament or who is the titular prime minister. At its core, the divide is over what Palestine is, where it is, and how its establishment is to be achieved: A secular or religious state? A state on the June 1967 borders, or over all of historic Palestine? Do Palestinians negotiate with guns or without them? Hamas may have pragmatists and hardliners on these issues. But that's the point: There is no real consensus, and given Hamas's own timeline, no urgency to produce one. And now with friendly Islamists rising in the Arab world, there's less of a rush.

The peace process in a box: Any kind of unity between Hamas and Fatah -- except one that compels Hamas to give up the gun, accept Israeli's right to exist, and defers to Abbas's authority -- will bury an already comatose peace process. Bringing Hamas into the PLO or a unity government with its current positions intact will compel the United States to cut aid to the PA, make it impossible to get negotiations with Israel launched. and give those in Israel who aren't terribly interested in the peace process an unassailable reason to just say no. Unity will make Abbas radioactive, too.

Three states: Like the two-state solution itself, real Palestinian unity is too important for Palestinians to abandon but too complex to realize. And these days, without the prospect of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it's one of those pastimes -- like the battle to win hearts and minds in the international arena -- that Palestinians will devote more time to.

Another powerful patron, President Mohamed Morsy's Egypt, also has an incentive to keep unity talks alive. After all, Hamas was derived from the Muslim Brotherhood, and looks increasingly to Egypt for support. But Morsy wants above all else to control this often unruly member of the family.

Morsy is no peacenik. He barely can bring himself to utter the words Israel or the two -state solution. But making a run a Palestinian unity, like his work at orchestrating a Gaza ceasefire, is good for his prestige and will keep a volatile issue on the back burner as he deals with pressing issues closer to home.

And if almighty Egypt wants to try, Palestinian leaders can't afford not to play along. Hamas needs Cairo to open up Gaza economically and to exert pressure on Israel. Abbas knows there's no going back to the good old days with Mubarak, but he too wants to stay on Egypt's good side. And so unity talks will start, stop, start again, and perhaps even result in a formal accord.

But beneath this faux process, the players will continue to dig in their heels. And that means further consolidation of Hamas's authority in Gaza, further settlement activity by Israel in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Abbas hanging on to his fiefdom over Ramallah and a few other towns. He may be facing a terrible economic and fiscal situation, but neither the Americans, the Israelis, or the international community will let him go under.

John Kerry -- a man who really does believe in diplomacy -- will want to do something serious on the Israeli-Palestinian issue because he believes it's important, because others will urge him to, and because that's what secretaries of state are supposed to do. But he'll have to deal with the Noah's Ark problem. Since he's not suicidal, he won't open up a dialogue with Hamas -- but dollars to donuts says he'll start talking to the Turks, the Egyptians, the Qataris (all led by Islamists with influence in Gaza) about ways to influence the organization.

Good luck to him. To paraphrase JRR Tolkien: It will not be one or two states to rule them all, but for now three -- Israel, Gaza, and a part of the West Bank, all trying to manage in the most imperfect of neighborhoods.

To be sure, this fellowship won't last. But from the perspective of three very important powers -- Egypt, Israel, and Hamas's leaders in Gaza -- it sure beats another war or a two-state solution. The first may yet come. And the second? Well, the second is the stuff of which dreams are made.