So friends of Israel pop up in the places you’d least expect them.
And then disappear before they are noticed.
That, in a nutshell, is the story behind the rise and fall of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the man thought at his confirmation hearings two years ago as one who would gut the United States’ military relationship with Israel for breakfast, strong arm Prime Minister Netanyahu into a building freeze for lunch, and then settle down for tea and crumpets, daring the Jewish lobby to take him down.
Strong arm? Did I use that word in the same sentence as Hagel? He went down on Monday as probably the most timid military chief in U.S. history, remembered more for his crusty confirmation proceedings than for any of his very forgettable actions while in office.
Hagel turned out to be a pretty solid, if weak, keeper of the flame. His frequent trips to Israel were marked with warmth and he developed close relationships with the Mideast country’s top brass. Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon even called Hagel, of previous “Jewish lobby” fame, “a true friend of Israel” whose “contributions to Israel’s defense infrastructure and to Israeli relations with the United States were great and very substantive.”
John McCain and Lindsay Graham, the two senators who led the fight two years ago not to confirm Hagel, a Republican as they are, had warm words for him.
It’s always easy to praise the guy fading off into the twilight. The plaques and honorarium are reserved for the has-beens. Hagel’s face at his resignation announcement looked like the CEO pushed out by a board vote, and then forced to undergo a roasting.
This news item forces me, personally, to revisit an article I wrote the day Hagel stumbled through his confirmation. I suggested at the time that Republicans confirm him, gaffes and all, and then use him to highlight Obama’s policies vis-à-vis Israel.
Two things happened since. First, Hagel cannot be used for anything. He was hired to be the get along guy at the Pentagon, the Republican figurehead who will implement Obama’s unpopular downsizing of the military, not keep or douse any flame, Israel or otherwise. He was hired precisely because of his gaffe-prone performance, not despite it.
Secondly, Obama can personally wreck a relationship without help from Hagel. A fawning article in The New York Times last week how the president ordered that his political tightening of the screws on Israel should not affect military cooperation is undercut by his actions.
In the end, the Hagel resignation is nothing more than everyday life in the Obama White House. A report earlier this year showed that of the 15 cabinet secretaries, only two or three of them met with the president with any regularity, mostly for golf and basketball chats. The rest sufficed with a stiff biannual meeting, ending with the usual pat on the head and friendly warning not to do anything that would end up in the papers.
Hagel, it appears, dutifully did what he was pressed into service for — cutting the military to a size not seen since before WWII and retreating from the Iraqi and Afghan battlefields. But with the sudden rise of the Islamic State, Defense abruptly became a top department for the administration once again after years of neglect.
We saw the same thing after the Republicans this month won the most decisive victory in a half century. “To those who didn’t vote, I hear you too,” Obama said. In other words, to all of you newcomers to office, welcome to Washington, hope you get a nice office, and we’ll meet at the battlefields.
And so it goes, the secretaries get Hageled and the boss gets the golf course.