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
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.
Alex Wong/Getty Images