Israel lobby should not have veto over US president’s cabinet

Hagel’s presence in the Obama cabinet could easily, in some circumstances, make the difference between war and peace.

Obama Hawaii
"Obama, it seems, only won the first battle with his re-election in November; he now has a tougher battle against people who nobody elected," says author [Reuters]

If you care about the direction of this country but think you don’t have time to pay attention to what the Israel lobby is doing, you may want to think again. This is no conspiracy theory – it is all in broad daylight and the stakes are big, in fact they are matters of life and death right now. As we communicate, the Israel lobby is teaming up with the neocon right to prevent President Obama from choosing his Secretary of Defence.

Now you may think, well the right just prevented him from choosing Susan Rice for Secretary of State, so what’s new and different here? The difference is that the fight over Susan Rice was just another stupid partisan fight over nothing, and the Republicans won because they had the power to block her nomination in the Senate. This was just a defeated party scoring points against their enemy, a Democratic president, and they gained absolute nothing as far as US foreign policy is concerned.

In fact they lost – for a handful of photo-ops and smears on the Sunday talk shows, and making their enemy look weak, they actually got a Secretary of State who is more likely to support what they don’t want. For example, John Kerry is in favour of getting rid of the antiquated and failed embargo on Cuba. And of course, the right could defeat Susan Rice; whereas they can’t defeat Kerry, because he is a long-time senator; and the Senate is an “old boys’ club” where someone like Kerry will sail through regardless of his politics.

Loyal to a foreign government?

Now comes Chuck Hagel, a Republican Senator who would normally also be easy to confirm in the Senate, as Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defence. But unlike in the case of Susan Rice, there are real, substantive objections to real substantive positions he has held: he was an early critic of the Iraq war; he wants to get out of Afghanistan, soon; he does not want a war with Iran; and he has supported cuts in military spending. This makes him neocon enemy number one, someone who must be crushed.

Of course, the neocons have their voices like the Weekly Standard and the Washington Post editorial board, but for those who may have noticed they have lost a lot of influence since they led us into that ugly war that nobody wants to remember in a place called Iraq.  In fact, even George W Bush had to be careful about listening to them during his second term. So on their own, the neocons couldn’t really get in the way of a nomination like this one, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and a Republican no less. 

  Inside Story US 2012 – What role does
the pro-Israel lobby play?

But the neocons joined up with a powerful ally – the most powerful lobby in the country, the Israel lobby. And that is no exaggeration: the Washington Post reported a few years ago that the annual AIPAC dinner in Washington, DC, was attended by the majority of the Senate and a big chunk of the US House. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries have some pretty formidable lobbies and they may be able to set the boundaries for healthcare reform, but they are not going to get 51 senators to show up at an annual dinner, no matter how fine the cuisine.

It’s almost not worth mentioning the smears that the Israel lobby has managed to get taken seriously, since they are not worth dignifying. So, Hagel once said he was a US senator and not a senator in the Israeli government. And for this he has been vilified. This really completes my argument. Is there any other country in the world where a legislator can be denounced for not being sufficiently loyal to a foreign government? This is worse than the McCarthy era; at least back then you had to swear loyalty to the US government.

And he once used the term “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby”, thus denying credit where credit is due, to right-wing evangelical Christians and other fine citizens who also would like to see a war with Iran and fight for the foreign policy agenda of Israel’s far right. This is a bit like taking someone to task for referring to the “Florida Cuban-American lobby”, thus leaving out right-wing Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and other haters who want to see the Castro brothers dead and the US on its way to re-possessing the island.

Last week, Eliot Engel became the first important Democratic Congressman to attack Chuck Hagel and oppose his nomination as Secretary of Defence. Engel is part of the Israel lobby and unfortunately he is now the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee. One of his first acts after being elected to Congress was to sponsor a resolution declaring Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel, an extremist position even by US State Department standards. 

Promoting the Israel lobby

Engel is a good example of how the Israel lobby, in alliance with the much weaker neocons, influences much more of US foreign policy than just the Middle East. Until the Democrats lost the House in 2010, he was Chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. What was he doing there, since his main interest is Israel? He was there to use the Committee to try to advocate for Israeli foreign policy in this hemisphere. Of course, he had allies among neocon Republicans like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, fanatical Cuban-born Florida right-winger who is the current (outgoing) Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Though the Republicans were more extreme, Engel shared their hostility toward left governments – now governing the majority of Latin America – that didn’t fall into line.  This included of course avowedly socialist governments such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela; but in 2010, when Brazil, together with Turkey, tried to broker a nuclear fuel swap arrangement with Iran, in an attempt to defuse the escalating confrontation between the US and Iran, Engel was quick to publicly denounce and threaten Brazil for doing, actually, what Washington had asked them to do.

It is important to understand that Engel’s commitment to the foreign policy of Israel is not the result of Jewish voters in New York’s 17th Congressional district. Jews are less than 14 percent of his district, which is majority African-American and Latino. And most American Jews do not agree with the extremist policies of the Israeli government, which Engel represents. This is a problem of an ideological and political commitment of someone working with a powerful lobby to influence US foreign policy.

Engel was one of 81 House Democrats who went against the majority of their party in the House and voted to authorise George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Most of these 81 Democrats had strong ties to the Israel lobby, distinguishing them from the Democrats who voted against the war. Would Congress have authorised that war without the influence of the Israel lobby?

It’s difficult to say, just as it is difficult to say how much their influence will be decisive if we end up going to war with Iran – a cause that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has lobbied for on national US TV and that the Israel lobby is eager to promote. But this country can no longer afford to have this kind of influence on such important decisions. 

The fight over the Hagel nomination, which would never have been a fight if not for the Israel lobby, is just the latest example. Hagel’s presence in the Obama cabinet could easily, in some circumstances, make the difference between war and peace. But Obama, it seems, only won the first battle with his re-election in November. He now has a tougher battle against people who nobody elected.

Michael Brun is visiting assistant professor of Economics at the Illinois State University.