The Lobby Questions

After a last-ditch effort by his opposition to do some muckraking has failed to harvest any serviceable pay dirt, Chuck Hagel has been confirmed today. Senator John McCain had conceded over the weekend that Hagel “very likely will be” confirmed, although he thinks the new Defense Secretary “will have been weakened” by the protracted battle. Another member of the anti-Hagel brigade spouting the same message is former diplomat Elliot Abrams, who, in an interview with Nahum Barnea, said “Yes. I suppose he will be confirmed. But he will be a weaker secretary of defense.” But Abrams–who during the contest for his confirmation leveled the most outrageous accusations at Hagel–didn’t stop there, bringing up again Hagel’s declaration that he was not an Israeli Senator but a United States Senator. For that, Abrams again flirted with labeling Hagel an anti-Semite, telling Barnea “I think that everyone who rules out an initiative by Jews to influence American policy is an anti-Semite. That’s my definition.”

Abrams had been forced to walk back from that precipice earlier due to the disapproval of his Council on Foreign Relations colleagues. In his retreat, he jettisoned dancing around the anti-Semitism slander and instead Abrams thought Hagel deserved to be questioned about his “apparent sentiment” that “Jews are doing something questionable or even disloyal when they join together to promote the closest possible alliance between the United States and Israel.”  There is no evidence Hagel feels this way and so he’s in no danger of being considered an outright anti-Semite, as defined above by Abrams. But does being opposed to the preponderant influence of all lobbies in politics still make one an anti-Semite? Also, do the adherents of the pro-Israel lobby straddle the fence between dual loyalties? Let’s answer the last question first, seeing that I’ve already given it some treatment.

Israeli writer Uri Avnery most recently wrote about how he and former President of the World Zionist Organization Nahum Goldmann attempted decades ago to unravel the enigma of why the U.S. is unable to impose peace on Israelis and Palestinians, a move so obviously in the U.S.’s interest. One explanation they settled on was “the growing power of the pro-Israel lobby” but it wasn’t convincing enough. Avnery wondered “What about the spying affair around Jonathan Pollard, who stays in prison for life in spite of immense Israeli pressure to release him?” It’s a well-made point—one helping to prove that the U.S. pro-Israel lobbies do not take dictation from Israel and that there is daylight between the two, which speaks of the hidden friction between American Jews and Israelis.

In a New York Times article from 1992 about Israeli Prime Minister Rabin’s dressing-down of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, the author Clyde Haberman observed that the “Israelis’ attitudes toward American Jewry have always been an ambivalent blend of gratitude and resentment.” He quotes, too, an American Jewish representative who said “Most Israelis don’t take American Jews seriously.” As Rabin’s scolding reflected Israeli bitterness towards his nation’s American Jewish benefactors, it also revealed that these groups march to their own tune when he told them they “should not pursue their own initiatives but rather take instructions from the Israeli Embassy in Washington.” This separation extends to today with AIPAC et al opposing Hagel and the Israeli government having no objections to his appointment. Seems like an odd way to exhibit dual loyalty when these lobbies think nothing of bucking their supposed masters.

But if pro-Israel lobbies aren’t Israel’s lackeys, why then don’t they demand the occupation of the Palestinians be ended? As Avnery and Goldmann asked, “Why, for God’s sake, did the Americans not do what logic dictated? … It could not be in the American national interest to follow a policy that made it a hate-object of the masses throughout the entire Arab and most of the Muslim world.” The occupation is undoubtedly not in the national interest but what it is in the interest of is the U.S. empire. The occupation is instrumental in Washington’s control of the region because it radicalizes the Arab nations who seek justice for their brethren and are incensed at their leaders’ perennial lack of action. Facing this popular rage makes the terrified Arab despots clamorous for American arms and support. So when AIPAC does nothing to advance the peace process know that they are doing so primarily on behalf of the empire.

Moving on to the first question I would say that it’s possible to oppose the influence of the pro-Israel lobbies without being an anti-Semite so long as one opposed special interest lobbies in general. And every lobby should be opposed because, as a Capitol Hill aide once reminded MJ Rosenberg, “The public is getting screwed eight ways to Sunday by special interests and AIPAC is just one of them.”  The aide went on to  add “The issues of jobs, health, taxes, the environment, regulation to protect kids’ health, oil drilling, workers’ safety, education, guns–they are all dictated by lobbies just as overbearing as AIPAC.” Rosenberg concurred, saying “AIPAC is part of an infinitely larger problem: a thoroughly corrupted political system.” He agrees with Bill Moyers in calling that corrupt political system a plutocracy where the super rich “have used their vastly increased wealth to assure that government does their bidding.” Overcoming the dominance of all lobbies and their plenteous money-bags will be the central challenge of returning to republican principles and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Want to Curb Lobbyism? Take a Shot of Bourbon

At the Senate Armed Services Committee panel to vote on sending along Chuck Hagel’s nomination to the Senate floor, certain Senators continued to perform their best impressions of Joe McCarthy, charging that Hagel is in bed with foreign elements. Senator Jim Inhofe accused Hagel of being “cozy” with Iran because his nomination has been received favorably by the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Senator Ted Cruz insinuated that Hagel’s had his coffers stuffed by North Korea and Saudi Arabia. It was enough to bring Senator Bill Nelson to rein the two in, saying that Cruz “basically had impugned the patriotism of the nominee,” and added, “to question in essence whether somebody is a fellow traveler with another country, I think is taking it too far.” The striking irony is that all these politicos who are so concerned that Hagel’s patriotism has been perverted by foreign ties are themselves ardent supporters of (and likely received cash from) the Israel lobby, which has itself been suspected of being a foreign agent.

In 2004 the primary group of the Israel lobby—AIPAC—was put under investigation by the Department of Justice for, as Ori Nir writes, “allegations that Aipac officials might have illegally passed classified documents on to Israel, which they received from a Pentagon employee, Larry Franklin.” Franklin and the AIPAC officials to whom he gave information were indicted but the larger case against the lobby was dropped in 2009. It wasn’t the first time AIPAC raised suspicions, not over espionage but for being in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Nir brings up the instances when Senator J. William Fulbright in the mid-Seventies and former senior CIA official Victor Marchetti in 1988 campaigned without success to get AIPAC registered as a foreign agent on those grounds. This trend apparently was at work in 2004 as Nir wrote how “Several Jewish communal leaders believe that the FBI’s initial investigation into Aipac might have revolved around alleged violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”

Has AIPAC always been in violation of FARA? Is AIPAC, as it describes itself, simply a homegrown “grassroots movement of activists committed to ensuring Israel’s security and protecting American interests in the Middle East and around the world” or a lobby for the Israeli government? AIPAC doesn’t receive a cent from Israel and escapes prosecution on that count but it was disclosed to Nir by anonymous former AIPAC employees that “Although Aipac staffers are known to be exceedingly careful in their dealings with official representatives of Israel, so as not to violate the law, there have been incidents in the past in which Israeli officials gave directions to Aipac to act in one way or another.” In spite of that, AIPAC again dodges a bullet because, according to Washington lawyer Tom Susman, the “law does allow for a certain degree of coordination with a foreign government,” and “a substantial independence [of the lobbying group] is all that’s needed. Not total independence.”

Since AIPAC has coordinated with Israeli officials and passed classified documents to them, that has blurred its status quite a bit and who knows what evidence the FBI investigation managed to procure proving that the lobby crossed the line from domestic to foreign. Still, I’d argue that the ‘A’ in AIPAC isn’t for show and that, like the neocons, though their focus is Israel, their main mission is to promote U.S. interests (as stated on its website) and ultimately its own interest as a lobby. “The bottom line is that the lobby is a racket,” asserts former AIPAC staffer MJ Rosenberg. “Yes, it is more loyal to Netanyahu’s Israel than to America but that means very little. It is primarily loyal to neither. It is about power for its own sake, particularly the power to intimidate.” I’d quibble that it’s more loyal to the American Empire for which Israel is a primary pillar but would agree with Rosenberg who wrote last week that, more than anything, AIPAC is “an institution dedicated to preserving its own power, not Israel’s security.”

The subject of AIPAC’s loyalties is a touchy one for its lobbyists. During the Franklin case, Nir wrote how Jewish communal leaders believed that the inquiry was to disgrace AIPAC and accuse its supporters of dual loyalty. Actually, it sounds more like it was done by people who wanted to shine a spotlight on the lobby since, as Nir put it, “registering as a foreign agent would require Aipac to provide significantly more detailed information about its aims and activities to the government—thereby robbing the group of a key weapon: the ability to operate behind the scenes.” But what remedy is left to these advocates of transparency who wish to curb the Israel lobby’s power?

AIPAC provides a priceless service to Washington by buttressing the ‘special relationship’ with Israel and so any attempt to weaken the lobby will be casually batted away. Americans, therefore, will have to go over the lobby’s head by challenging the U.S. Empire itself. To do so, all who are inclined must take a shot of Bourbon—a shot of the Bourbon Democrats’ political philosophy, that is. The Bourbons, in accordance with their classical liberalism, were staunch anti-imperialists and they opposed special interest politics as a matter of principle too. If we are tired of spending trillions of dollars on “benevolent global hegemony,” then as a first step it’s time to start emulating them.

Hagel and McCarthyism Redux

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is taking a gallant last stand for all the anti-Hagel crusaders out there. Cruz has spearheaded a letter with the signatures of 25 fellow Republicans that succeeded in stalling Hagel’s confirmation vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee by demanding the nominee disclose an inordinate amount of financial information well beyond the committee’s legal right to request. Though Chairman Carl Levin permitted the postponement, he said, according to Jeremy Herber, “the demands for information… were unprecedented,” and, undaunted, added “If Republicans remain unsatisfied with the information from Hagel, a vote is still coming.” So why would Cruz bother with such a futile measure? It’s so the freshman senator can make a name for himself in the Republican Party as his colleagues and the GOP rank and file shower him with accolades over this and other ‘bold’ stands he has taken since his term began in January.

And so it goes for Hagel’s other opponents—sure they have their minor qualms about his appointment but ultimately for these Republicans this is a partisan slugfest aimed at President Obama. Throwing up impediments to the Hagel vote—even if it achieves nothing–is meant to vex the White House and score points with the base back home. I knew when Cruz submitted his letter it was a move to magnify his stature but I was nevertheless struck by the justification for it by supporters. One GOP aide told Buzzfeed that the Senators are trying to ascertain if Hagel has been “unduly influenced by foreign governments or foreign agents over the last five years,” and wondering “What is he hiding?” Then there’s Senator Lindsey Graham, who had this to offer when explaining his stance:

Sen. Levin can say that some of this is out of bounds, and he may be right, some of this may be unprecedented. But this is a sort of an unprecedented nominee,” Graham said. Asked why this information was being asked of Hagel and not prior nominees, Graham said: “I don’t think we’ve had previous nominees with this sort of, kind of, hostile attitude toward a friend like Israel. “I think what we’re all looking for is, did Sen. Hagel get on the speaking circuit to [speak to] anti-Israeli groups?” Graham said. “What kind of things did he say about Israel and other potential allies?

Graham is dead wrong about there being no precedent. In fact, by his own metric, the last two men to head the Defense Department were feverishly anti-Israel, both going so far as to call that country’s government an “ungrateful ally.” But where was Graham when Robert Gates and Leon Panetta were vomiting this vitriol? Why didn’t he and the other pro-Israel paladins strive to unseat them with all the resources they could muster? At the very least, they could have written some stinging editorials bashing the Secretaries for having the temerity, the gall to criticize Israel. Instead, to my knowledge, there wasn’t a peep of protest. How to account for this double standard? I suppose it’s alright to be ‘anti-Israel’ so long as one is in office and not an aspiring nominee.

Actually it’s because Graham and other politicos who are so willing to whip (almost) anyone not fully endorsing their pro-Israel orthodoxy aren’t as infatuated with Israel as they let on. Former AIPAC staffer MJ Rosenberg revealed a disconnect, tweeting “I’ve talked to lots of senators about Israel. Not one including former senators Biden and Kerry believe their public statements.” The reason for this is the Israel lobby which has been much-discussed thanks to Hagel. The topic of that lobby was brought up by Graham during Hagel’s hearing and he took the opportunity to chasten the nominee for having said that the lobby “intimidates a lot of people up here [on Capitol Hill]” Graham demanded that Hagel narrate a single instance where a congressman had been intimidated and Hagel responded that he could not and expressed a desire to amend his language. Of course, the irony, as Henry Siegman illustrated, is “there could be no better and conclusive evidence of the Israel Lobby’s power of intimidation of U.S. senators on the subject of Israel than these hearings themselves, and most particularly Senator Graham’s own behavior.”

In another sense, however, Hagel was right to want to exchange “influences” for “intimidates” in his statement. Why, because most of the time the Hill doesn’t need to be intimidated into doing what they want to do anyway. They are already in sync with the Israel lobby due to mutual interests. Like the neocons, these congressmen want to cultivate the ‘special relationship’ with Israel for the sake of the American empire. It is only in times when their priorities clash that some reluctant members might require some “influence” to be prevailed upon. And other times when there’s a clash the lobby loses as they did with President Reagan’s sale of AWACS jets to Saudi Arabia.

But it’s not as if Israel loses when the lobby does because, in MJ Rosenberg’s experience, “the lobby is not really about Israel. It is about exerting influence, pushing our government around and promoting war with Muslims and Arabs.” Nor does he neglect to mention “primary thing it is about”—the swollen salaries of the lobby’s leaders. So, as things stand, congress is about the empire and the Israel lobby is about sustaining its benefits as a lobby. Having established that, let’s address briefly the charge that Hagel is being somehow undermined or compromised by foreign funding.

His opponents are plainly playing the McCarthy card which is pulled out any time anyone mildly dissents from Washington’s Rules. The dissenters must only doubt because they are on the dole of some foreign potentate. It can’t be because they’re considering realistically their country’s true interests and taking to heart the values upon which their country was founded. No, they must be unpatriotic. I expect the anti-Hagel attitude—which is McCarthyism redux—will one day soon follow its logical conclusion and reduce itself to haling citizens before a committee and asking them “are you, or have you ever been, a thinking man?”

Hagel Has Made It and What That Means

The Chuck Hagel hearing circus made it seem as if the Senate is no longer on Old Boys Club but the drummed-up drama wasn’t enough to come between former colleagues who are still personal friends. The New York Times is today reporting that Senator John McCain is opposed to filibustering Hagel’s senate confirmation and “that he would press his colleagues on the matter.” He is joined by Senators Richard M. Burr, Susan Collins, and Roy Blunt providing Hagel the majority needed to nullify any filibuster. With this shift “it became clear many Republicans did not have the stomach to filibuster a cabinet nomination, a move that may be unprecedented. To do so would take egregious circumstances, like ethical or legal violations, Mrs. Collins said.”

All that is left to Hagel’s hardcore opponents are trifling bumps in the road since “with the new opposition to a filibuster, Mr. Hagel will almost certainly head the Defense Department.” Hagel’s confirmation is officially a fait accompli so what significance will this have for President Obama’s second term foreign policy? Israeli journalist, Larry Derfner, has already dismissed Hagel, thinking his impact on the Middle East at least will be nil:

“I don’t think it matters; he’s been so compromised, so smacked around by Israel’s enforcers, that he’d probably be afraid to say anything but “yes” to Netanyahu once he got to the Pentagon. This was a spectacle of America and Israel at their worst. It was the worst of the Obama administration, too, a reminder of why this president’s second term is unlikely to be any better than his first as far as the Middle East is concerned. Oh well. So much for Chuck Hagel. Another great white hope vanquished.”

Is he right that Hagel has been effectively de-clawed and purged of all that made him controversial? Not so fast—the last two Defense Secretaries, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, got sterling confirmation votes and nevertheless were able to later be critical of the Israeli government. Gates at a meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee right before his retirement lambasted Prime Minister Netanyahu as an “ungrateful ally” to no objection from senior officials who were present and Panetta reiterated that charge last year. One could argue that Gates was in a sufficiently safe position to make that statement but, as Jeffrey Goldberg noted, he had “expressed his frustration with Netanyahu’s government before” over issues like the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and arm sales to the U.S.’s regional allies. Both men have used language more scathing more than anything uttered by Hagel and, remarkably, neither were ever considered anti-Israel and no politico raised a pother demanding they be discharged from office.

More, Gates and Panetta also mirror Hagel on Iran and would agree with their successor that warring with Iran over their civilian nuclear program is “not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” Gates grimly warned that attacking on Iran “could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world,” and said the U.S. should stress to Israel’s government that they “do not have a blank check to take action that could do grave harm to American vital interests.” Panetta, according to the Guardian, “said he agreed with the assessment of his predecessor, Robert Gates, that a strike on Iran would only delay its nuclear program,” adding “You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here. It could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region.” They were able to say these things with impunity yet Hagel is being raked across the coals for espousing the same viewpoints? Cue the circus music.

In sum, Derfner is half-right—Hagel won’t have much of an impact on the administration’s foreign policy because there’s no visible difference between himself and his two predecessors. The president is trending towards a deal with Iran and Hagel is being brought aboard the cabinet to give more heft for that purpose. Hagel has the requisite military credibility to help settle the nuclear dispute but it’s not as if he has to single-handedly alter the administration’s consensus through a herculean effort. He simply has to steer the ship of state on the course already set by Gates and Panetta and avoid the cliffs of calamitous war. Once he’s confirmed, if the precedence of his predecessors is anything to go by, Derfer can rest assured that Hagel’s critical voice will be heard in the White House and will grow in stridency—enough perhaps to revive the great white hope.

All the World’s a Stage For Politicians

Chuck Hagel had a less than stellar performance at his hearing where he faltered before those who freshman senator Angus King dubbed his “inquisitors.” To Michael Cohen, Hagel was “sluggish, tongue-tied and practically meek in the face of constant badgering” and Winslow Wheeler found him “fumbling and apologetic.” But how could he have comported himself so woefully with all the weeks of preparation he undoubtedly had? How come, as John Judis observed, “Hagel acted as if he was blindsided”?  It’s because he was acting, like he and Senator Chuck Schumer did when they met last month. This time Hagel was participating in the gaudy, gigantic political circus that is a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. There was no need for him to deliver riveting soliloquies in response to the absurd grilling and all he had to do was the minimum–avoid fighting back and let his former colleagues clown around to their heart’s content.

That the hearing was but a grandiose show was amply illustrated by Matt Duss who came up with an explanation for the “hesitant and adrift” Hagel:

Looking to make sense of the spectacle, I spoke to a former senior defense official who has testified over 200 times before Congressional committees, who suggested that Hagel may have been right not to push back harder. “The thing to remember with these hearings is that the Senators have home-field advantage,” he said. “You really can’t win. If they’re there to score points, they’ll do it.”

As to the element of performance involved, “Once, before a hearing, I was passed a note by a Senator,” the former official continued. “It read ‘Don’t pay attention to what I’m about to say, it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at my constituents.’ So there’s a lot of theater involved in these things.”

James Joyner, who cited the foregoing quote in his own piece on the hearing, felt that saying there’s “a lot of theater involved” was “a rather kind understatement. In fact, the hearings—like pretty much all congressional hearings—are almost entirely theater with very little substance. The senators have already made up their mind on how they’re going to vote.” Defense expert Anthony Cordesman concurs, telling Matthew Schofield that “the hearing appeared to be about stating already set opinions and that he [Cordesman] doubted it would change any votes.” Hagel certainly knew that this was a farce with a foreordained outcome and he shrewdly muttered the answers he needed to in order to get confirmed. One of the inquisitors, Senator Jim Inhofe, caught on to this when he commented on the prospective Defense Secretary’s “recent trend of policy reversals that seem based on political expediency rather than on core beliefs.” True, but Inhofe and the rest of the resistance were likely doing some play-acting of their own.

Hagel must have been passed his fair share of notes from his opponents who reassured him that he should ignore their grandstanding which was for scoring political points in their home states (Just look at who Senator Lindsey Graham has to placate). But, aside from the anti-Hagel japeries at the hearing, there is an even greater act of collective mendacity pervading Washington that was on display that day. “It’s the law” as Jon Schwarz describes it that “everybody in the U.S. government has to tell this funny lie”: all options are on the table for dealing with Iran. No politico believes that to be the case because, as Schwarz argues, none of them have ever advocated for the best and “obvious option for dealing with any Iranian ambitions to build nuclear weapons would be for the U.S. to push for a zone free of all nuclear weapons throughout the Mideast.” All options are clearly not being weighed and Schwarz’s piece reminded me of another funny lie that I uncovered—the military option isn’t really on the table either.

Though I have written about how Israel dropped the military option against Iran and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pulling off the bluff of the century, considering the strong aversion to war with Iran in the U.S. military establishment it’s safe to say that the Pentagon stealthily dropped the option too. All this insistence that the U.S. will bomb Iran is wind but everyone in Washington, whatever their private scruples, is obliged to uphold this unspoken law so as not to rupture the bluff. Why is Washington taking this gambit? Because it has its advantages, which is the reason no one will come out in force against the military option but instead delicately object about timing. Like with Israeli officials who know war would be a disastrous idea zip their lips because they don’t wish to ruin Netanyahu’s successful poker maneuver, their U.S. counterparts recognize the benefits of bravado.

For Israel, bluffing that they’ll unilaterally attack Iran, as Israeli commentator Udi Segal outlines the strategy, “makes the Iranians feel fear, the Americans take action, the Europeans impose sanctions, and everyone worry.” For the U.S. the constant touting of a military option keeps tensions up in the region which makes the Gulf States clamorous for more and better arms. Our supplying them with these arms serves to make them bastions against Iran, putting them in the forefront of the mini Cold War while the U.S., leading from behind, is then finally able to pivot to the Pacific. So, in brief, that’s why we see everyone publicly truckling to the hawks but we needn’t be worried because everyone is in on the ruse. What we’ve learned from Hagel’s hearing and the capital’s ubiquitous theatrics is that overtly discussing serious policy is subordinated to having politicians strutting and fretting their hour upon the world’s stage and risking World War III in the process.