A matter of judgment

Barack_Obama_announces_new_defense_secretary_Chuck_HagelA new biography of Joseph P Kennedy (The Patriarch, by David Nasaw) dismisses the suggestion that he was pro-Nazi. Kennedy was merely anti-war. We could add that he was anti-Semitic and anti-British – the functional equivalent of being pro-Nazi. In fairness, we should note that when he expressed sympathy with the Nazi approach to the “Jewish problem”, Nazi policy was based on barring Jews from certain professions, making them wear a Star of David in public, and turning a blind eye to anti-Semitic violence. Systematic genocide had not started, and Kennedy specifically said that he opposed genocide.

Today, of course, such overt anti-Semitism, even when it falls short of supporting genocide, is a bar to high office in the US. Even the suggestion of anti-Semitism can be devastating to a career. Such accusations are being made, on very thin evidence, against Chuck Hagel, a former Republican Senator, and President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense.

He once described the pro-Israel campaign in the US as “the Jewish lobby”. The leadership of the main pro-Israel campaign is mostly Jewish, though it has support from many other people, including evangelical Christians. It is also not a “lobby” in the sense of seeking self-interested favors from the government, like the motor-industry lobby, it advocates a cause which its members support, like an environmental group. Jewish groups in Nebraska claim he was unfriendly to them. Whether that means very much, other than that they advocated policies with which he did not agree, is unclear. 

Hagel is certainly less supportive of Israeli policy than is considered mainstream in the US. He once expressed that by saying that he was a US Senator not an Israeli Senator. This is an obvious truism, which could be taken as implying that he thinks some other elected representatives – perhaps including New York’s senior Senator, Chuck Schumer – have divided loyalties. It could, just as easily, mean, that he did not consider the fact that a policy is in the interests of Israel sufficient to make it a policy he should support. 

Senator Schumer is satisfied that Hagel is worthy of his support. He seems, properly, to reject the view that Hagel is anti-Semitic. His support is likely to prove decisive. Schumer is influential across the Democratic caucus. He will probably be the next Democratic leader in the Senate.

In the absence of serious ethical questions, the President should probably get his nominee. Elections have consequences. That Hagel, despite his Republican provenance, may well be to the left of President Obama is of little import. The President will still determine the thrust of policy.

But Common Sense still has doubts about Hagel. He is not anti-Semitic, but his judgment is questionable. Hagel has consistently argued against using military force against Iran. That he favors diplomacy first is sensible and, in any case, present policy. But the President has kept the option of military force open. Joe Kennedy’s worst offence was telling Germany that the US would not enter the war on Britain’s side. FDR wanted to keep Hitler uncertain on that. Kennedy was convinced Roosevelt was bluffing, but should never have told the Germans that. Similarly, President Obama wants Iran to believe that he might well take action to halt its nuclear weapons program. He may be bluffing, but let’s keep the Iranians guessing on that.


Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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