In an interview with former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller in 2006, then-Sen. Chuck Hagel made a controversial statement about the "Jewish lobby." On the eve of Hagel's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Miller argues that it's time to let those comments go.
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NEAL CONAN, HOST:
And as mentioned, Aaron David Miller is going to join us now, and we brought him on to talk about Chuck Hagel's nomination. But Aaron David Miller, the long-time Middle East peace negotiator and now a fellow at the Wilson Center, I have to ask you, Aaron - thanks very much for being with us, by the way.
AARON DAVID MILLER: A pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And there's a report coming out of Syrian television, being reported - relayed by the Associated Press which says that Israeli aircraft attacked a research center in Damascus province at dawn on Wednesday. Sources tell Reuters - this is another report from Reuters - earlier that Israeli jets bombed a convoy on Syria's border with Lebanon Wednesday, apparently targeting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Damascus province includes much of the border with Lebanon. Throughout the past - well, ever since the Syrian civil war erupted, Israel has been carefully watching weapons deliveries from Syria to Hezbollah.
MILLER: Yeah. And I think the first attack might explain that. That was on the Lebanese side of the border, perhaps. I'm not at all clear what the second attack was all about. A research center in the vicinity of Damascus?
CONAN: Don't - well, these are just fragmentary reports.
CONAN: Again, Syrian television being relayed by Reuters and AP.
MILLER: Right. That would be quite serious. I mean, I can't remember the last time the Israelis struck that close to the city proper. And I just wonder what sort of authority or authenticity that report has. The Israelis are clearly watching the situation, as are we. Dispersal of chemical weapons is clearly the main concern, not a conventional war either by the current regime or any of its successors.
I think the real concern here is that Syria implodes - decentralization means loss of control of chemical agents, which may require some sophistication and technology. But if they fall into the wrong hands, it is something that we and the Israelis and much of the international community would be very worried about.
CONAN: And, again, these are fragmentary reports, Syrian television reporting these attacks, and their reports being relayed by Reuters and the Associated Press. So we will bring you more details as they become available and, certainly, confirmation as that becomes available.
Since President Obama named former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his next secretary of defense, there's been a campaign to oppose the nomination, including this ad run by an anonymously funded group called the Emergency Committee for Israel.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel? President Obama says he supports sanctions on Iran. Hagel voted against them. Hagel voted against labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. And while President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran, Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. President Obama, for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option.
CONAN: In part, that criticism is based on a quote that former Senator Hagel gave to Aaron David Miller in an interview for his book, "The Much Too Promised Land," where Hagel talked about the intimidation of what he infamously described as the Jewish lobby. Senator Hagel's confirmation goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee tomorrow. Aaron David Miller, vice president of New Initiatives and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center - I've got all of your titles there. And, Aaron, Senator Hagel's use of that phrase, the Jewish lobby, has been portrayed as some - as maybe anti-Semitic, maybe anti-Israeli.
MILLER: You know, I don't think it's that. I don't use the term, because it really doesn't capture the full sophistication and comprehensiveness of the pro-Israeli view in the United States, which includes millions of Christians, Evangelical Christians, non-believers, as well. Chuck Hagel used it. I don't think - it's used all the time in the Israeli press. I don't think it betrays a - certainly, Chuck Hagel is not an anti-Semite. I don't think he's an enemy or adversary of the state of Israel. I think he frankly is one of the very few, when he was senator, sitting representatives who is prepared to accept the fact that not everything the Israelis do we approve of, and he's prepared to say it. And I think, you know, as he said to me in the interview, you know, if I wanted a job that was secure and safe, I'd go sell shoes. The fact is Hagel believes, I think, in what I would call a special relationship with the state of Israel, but not an exclusive one. That is to say there are times when there - the interest of both nations coincide and when they fundamentally differ. And Chuck Hagel, frankly, is not timid about speaking about those interests. It doesn't mean that by the same token that he's going to pursue policies, and he didn't as a U.S. senator, which are in opposition to Israeli security needs or the state of Israel.
So I think that, frankly, that issue is the least of the concerns that some of his critics have. The other issues, what he has said since leaving the Senate on various policy question - Hamas, Hezbollah, sanctions - all of that will be examined appropriately during the hearings that will begin, and he'll elaborate and explain. At the end of the day, it seems to me, I would be stunned if the Senate didn't confirm him.
CONAN: It is highly unusual for the Senate to reject a Defense Department head. It was John Tower who was rejected back in the Reagan administration, but that's a long time ago when there were other issues involved, personal issues there as well. Chuck Hagel's - you mentioned his positions on sanctions. He has said that, for example, on Iran, he believes that the option of a military strike on Iran is certainly not to be recommended.
MILLER: Well, he's also, in an op-ed, I believe, in '08 or '09 in company of others talked about all options being on the table. And I think we - at the risk of oversimplifying this issue, I think we have to come to terms with two basic realities about the Hagel nomination. Number one, he is going to be working for the most controlling withholding foreign policy president since Richard Nixon. What Chuck Hagel thinks or doesn't think about Iranian sanctions, policies toward Hamas or the domestic politics on the Arab-Israeli issue and the United States - frankly is not going to be terribly relevant to his brief. That's number one.
Number two, I do believe, and I would put John Kerry in this mix as well, it is no coincidence that this president has gone with two Vietnam vets, both of whom served in a very unproductive war and who I think both believe - they're both skeptics. They're both doubters. Neither are ideologues. And I suspect that as secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel will raise some very important questions about when, where, how and why the United States projects its military power abroad. I do think that he represents a kind of Republican realism, which is quite apart from the policies pursued during the second Bush administration. He's a Bush 41er, frankly, not a Bush 43er.
And I think, Neal, that some of the criticism of his nomination, by John McCain and others, reflect - perhaps with the best of intentions, reflects the notion that they are very unhappy with the direction of this particular president's foreign policy. That's why I believe much about the Hagel nomination has nothing to do with Chuck Hagel - opposition to that nomination - but it has a lot to do with Barack Obama.
CONAN: And so rough up the president a little bit, remind him that the Senate has a role to play. And some would say rough up the nominee a little bit to remind him that he will need to think twice on these policies if he is confirmed.
MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think that's absolutely the case. We've had 17 presidents elected to two terms. Barack Obama is the 17th and I think far from having a free hand on a variety of foreign policy issues and certainly domestic ones. Anyone who's been in this town over the last several weeks has seen the kind of very intense tick tock that is going to be at play not only in issues like gun control, fiscal cliff, debt ceiling and immigration reform, even though I'm struck, frankly, by the degree of cooperation in the Senate these days, which I welcome. But Barack Obama will not have a free hand. And I think much of this is a reminder by the Republicans.
It's also something else, though, Neal. You know, Barack Obama himself is a realist, along the lines of Bush 41. But he's also borrowed a page frankly from Bush 43's book. He has emerged, in my view, to be a much less ideological, much less reckless, much more effective version of George W. Bush. He kept Guantanamo open. He doubled down in Afghanistan.
CONAN: He didn't have a lot of choice about that.
MILLER: No, he didn't, but he is functioning within a set of national security parameters, which frankly was set by 9/11. Predator drones, he has escalated the campaign and, you know, the numbers of kills will, at some point, surpass the number 3,000 - the number of Americans who died in 9/11. So I mean, I think that, in a way, there is this Republican frustration. They don't like the Bush 41 realism, but it's very hard for them to attack the president because he's outmaneuvered and out-cornered many of them on foreign policy. And Chuck Hagel provides a convenient target.
CONAN: We're talking Aaron David Miller, the long-time former diplomat and now a vice president of New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
There are critics on the other side of Senator Hagel, to the left, who say that, yes, well, he may have talked against the Iraq War. But he voted for it and he only talked after several years. He is not the independent that we think he is and not likely to change policy much at the Pentagon, as you say, likely to follow the dictates of his president and continue those drone strikes.
MILLER: I mean, I think that's for sure. And the issue of drone strikes, you know, has now expanded to include, you know, Mali and in parts of Africa, which present the United States with a tremendous challenge. I mean, the reports indicate that we're exploring the possibilities of setting up a drone base in Niger. This is obviously just for surveillance for now. But I suspect that it will evolve into something quite different over time if the threat to our interests in North Africa from these al-Qaida surrogates and subcontractors continue.
So, look, I think that - I don't think you're going to see any dramatic changes in American foreign policy over the course of the last four year - next four years. Our priorities are still going to be rooted here and that the - what I call the five deadly D's that are really eroding American power: debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, decaying infrastructure, dependence on hydrocarbons, a deteriorating educational system. These are the things that have always been the source of our foreign policy abroad.
I think that barring some fundamental eruption, and you could face some true surprise that gets us into another military conflict, I think there will be a cruel and unforgiving assessment by Hagel and by the president about the efficacy and the wisdom of using American military power unless our means, the means at our disposal somehow match up against the ends we want to achieve.
CONAN: And that would suggest that there would be no push to intervene in Syria.
MILLER: I think that - I don't know if you saw the president's interview with the New Republic.
CONAN: I did. Yeah.
MILLER: But that final paragraph is a - it's a rare revelation of how a president actually constructs his own logic chain. I think the administration, barring the dispersal of chemical weapons and some event I cannot imagine, the United States will do everything it possibly can, and I frankly - I know there's division on this and it's not easy to watch. But I do not believe that the half measures we would consider - arming various groups of the Syrian opposition, a no-fly zone based in Turkey - will actually do much to alter, tragically, the arc of this conflict. And that's why I don't support them.
CONAN: Again, we reported earlier from Syrian television via AP and Reuters allegations that Israeli aircraft attacked targets in Syria today. No confirmation on that. Stay tuned to NPR News for further details as they become available. But, Aaron David Miller, before I let you go, there has been - in between the last time we spoke, an election in Israel, which surprised many by the centrist party that surprisingly finished second. And some say, opened up the opportunity to renew peace negotiations on the - with Palestinians.
MILLER: I think the real - I think it's too early to say, Neal, whether or not the new government - we're in for weeks of coalition negotiations before we can see what the character and the complexion is. But I think it would be a mistake to assume that somehow this new government is any more adept at being able to negotiate a conflict and an agreement than the last one. Benjamin Netanyahu may well have - and remember, this is his third term. He has now served more years as Israeli prime minister than any of his predecessors, with the exception of David Ben-Gurion.
He has at least 82 seats to play with in the Knesset out of 120. The right in Israel, that's what this election shows, moved further right. And the independents actually made a pretty strong showing. But I'm not sure, unless we're talking about social economic issues - whether the Orthodox will do national service, some of the income disparity questions - I don't think this is a government that frankly is preparing for peace. It's a government that is preparing, perhaps, to better manage its long-term problem with the Palestinians and wants to address some very important social and economic issues.
CONAN: Yet, there's that civil war in Syria, there's unrest in Jordan, unrest in Lebanon, Egypt in crisis and foreign policy played so little part in those Israeli elections.
MILLER: It is quite remarkable. And in that respect, I think it kind of was a defeat for a prime minister who has emerged as the poster child on the national security issue. That argument obviously didn't play terribly well in large part, I think, because Israel's security situation paradoxically has actually been pretty good. No suicide terror, no invasion of Gaza, relations with Egypt - peace treaty is still maintained, although developments in Egypt are extremely worrisome. Jordan just had its elections. The king managed to continue to survive. I think this government is yet to be seen. I think it's testament to the fact, frankly in the end, not so much of an "Israeli spring," quote, unquote. But young Israelis - if you look at the 19 members of Yair Lapid's party...
CONAN: This is that centrist party.
MILLER: ...they're all fresh - yes, they're all fresh faces, untainted, unexperienced by traditional Israeli politics.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, thanks as always for your time. We appreciate it.
MILLER: Always a pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller from the Woodrow Wilson Center joined us from a studio there. Tomorrow, the fight over immigration on the Hill, the Gang of Eight and the president singing similar tunes not quite in harmony and, well, we have yet to hear from the House. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.