On Hagel, Abrams, and Haass: Why Richard Haass should tell Elliott Abrams to apologize

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has the opportunity to make a principled stand in favor of reasoned discourse about American foreign policy. All he needs to do is insist that one of his employees -- senior fellow Elliott Abrams -- issue a public apology to Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel.

Why does Abrams owe Hagel a public apology? Not because he opposes Hagel's candidacy, which is his right. Rather, Abrams owes Hagel an apology because he falsely accused him of being an anti-Semite. The charge wasn't something Abrams just blurted out in an ill-considered moment: He first made the accusation in writing in the neoconservative journal the Weekly Standard (where accusing people of anti-Semitism is a well-developed practice) and then repeated it in an interview with National Public Radio.

As Ali Gharib of the Daily Beast and others have documented, these charges are baseless. Not only have prominent Israelis leapt to Hagel's defense against these smears, but so have important American Jewish leaders and some of Hagel's longtime Jewish friends from Nebraska. Abrams knows all this, of course, but that has not led him to retract his earlier calumnies against a distinguished public servant and decorated soldier.

Why does Haass need to take firm stand on this issue? Because making false accusations of anti-Semitism is an odious tactic that runs contrary to how one should behave in a great democracy like the United States. Not only have such smear tactics done great damage to innocent individuals' careers, but they also have a chilling effect on public debate about important foreign-policy issues. Promoting intelligent discourse about American foreign policy is the CFR's main raison d'être, which is why its leadership should not tolerate an employee who engages in this reprehensible behavior.

Given the long and tragic history of anti-Semitism, it is imperative that we remain on guard against it. Indeed, one can understand why some people err on the side of caution when questions about anti-Semitism are raised. But the assault on Hagel has nothing to do with protecting Jews from bigotry. On the contrary, it is a politically motivated smear campaign conducted by a small number of extremist neoconservatives who disagree with Hagel's views on foreign policy and are also trying to enforce the crumbling taboo against open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy, especially as it relates to Israel. To do this, Abrams and his allies have slandered Hagel with a hateful and false charge. In a fairer world, their campaign would have no impact on Hagel's reputation and instead discredit them.

Unfortunately, making false charges of anti-Semitism has become a risk-free activity that carries virtually no penalty and may even win the accuser support in some circles. Small wonder that hard-line defenders of Israel use this charge so promiscuously: They pay no price for doing so while their targets invariably pay dearly, even when the targets are innocent. So long as this is the case, why should anyone expect such slanders to stop?

Abrams is obviously free to oppose Hagel's nomination and to marshal legitimate arguments against his candidacy. And Haass -- who is a strong and vocal supporter of Hagel's candidacy -- should certainly not try to force anyone at the council to agree with him and support Hagel. But what Abrams should not be permitted to do under CFR's aegis is make unsubstantiated insinuations about Hagel's supposed "problem with Jews." That is the rankest form of McCarthyism and is antithetical to everything the council represents.

So as president of an organization that aims to foster open and respectful debate about foreign policy and improve America's standing in the world, Haass now has the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to make a stand for reasoned, rational discourse. To his credit, he has distanced himself and the council from Abrams's remarks, telling an interviewer that these insinuations of anti-Semitism were "over the line." But he needs to go further and tell Abrams to issue a public apology to Hagel. If Abrams refuses, Haass should fire him.

If Haass doesn't do that, he will have allowed Abrams's behavior to tarnish CFR's reputation, and he will have helped stymie open and honest debate about American foreign policy. Needless to say, that is exactly the opposite of what the president of the Council on Foreign Relations is supposed to be doing.

Richard Haass has made important contributions to U.S. foreign policy through his writings, his own public service, and his leadership at CFR. By doing the right thing now, he has the chance to make another one. And all Abrams has to do is admit he was wrong and say he is sorry.

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