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Hagel Critic: 'He Seems To Have Some Kind Of Problem With Jews'


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, President Obama announced his nominees for two key national security posts. For CIA director, he picked John Brennan, now his top counterterrorism adviser. And for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, a Republican and a Vietnam War veteran.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary.

BLOCK: That choice of Chuck Hagel has generated strong criticism from a number of quarters, in particular for Hagel's positions on Israel, Iran and Iraq.

We're going to hear from one of those critics now, Elliott Abrams, who served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. He's a neoconservative on foreign policy, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.


BLOCK: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, over the weekend, said that Chuck Hagel if confirmed would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history. Do you share that view?

ABRAMS: Well, the history goes back a long time. But I think he's certainly quite antagonistic toward Israel. He's made a number of remarks over a period - long period of years that suggest a real lack of sympathy, and a kind of accusation that anyone who disagrees with him has a dual loyalty and is not really a loyal citizen.

BLOCK: One of those comments was a statement that Chuck Hagel made in a 2006 interview. He said: The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator. But it's interesting because the interviewer, Aaron David Miller - the former Mideast peace negotiator with the State Department - says that using that phrase, "the Jewish lobby," to portray Hagel as anti-Semitic, which some have done, is in his words: shameful and scurrilous. What do you think?

ABRAMS: Well, I think you need to look at that full quote where he says: I support Israel but I take an oath to the Constitution of the United States. Who is he comparing himself to? He's also used terms beyond just Jewish lobby. There are some quotes from the Jewish community of Nebraska, the state for which he was a senator, that suggests a hostility toward that community - their word, not mine.

There's an incident where he's trying to close down the USO site in Haifa, Israel, where a lot of American ships were visiting. And he says to the Jewish organization that is trying to keep it open: Let the Jews pay for it. There's a pattern here and it's a very troubling pattern.

BLOCK: The comment that you attribute to Chuck Hagel, about the USO in Haifa, did not come directly from Chuck Hagel, is that correct? It was through someone who was talking to a reporter, paraphrasing what she said Chuck Hagel had told her.

ABRAMS: It is what she said Chuck Hagel had told her, that's right.

BLOCK: What are your concerns on Chuck Hagel's positions on Iran?

ABRAMS: Well, Chuck Hagel said in 2006: I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. He's also one of the only two senators who voted against the Iran/Libya Sanctions Act in 2001.

Now, the president's policy is supposed to be that we're going to use tougher and tougher and tougher sanctions in an effort to get a diplomatic settlement, to force Iran into a diplomatic settlement. And if we can't get that, then the military option is on the table. The president has said clearly, he is not for containment, he is for prevention. There's no evidence that Hagel supports that view. The evidence seems to suggest that he is neither for sanctions nor for a military strike.

What he's for seems to be immediate and unconditional talks with Iran which, indeed, he called for toward the end of the Bush administration. So the signal the president is sending is that he doesn't believe in his own Iran policy.

BLOCK: But Chuck Hagel as senator did, in fact, vote for sanctions on Iran numerous times; multilateral sanctions including nonproliferation acts.

ABRAMS: He voted for them and he voted against them. And he also said in that quote I gave you that he didn't even think a military option was viable, never mind as a matter of policy - wise or unwise. How does that fit with the president's really tough language, especially in 2012? I think this is at the very least a mixed message and the wrong message to send to Tehran right now.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about Iraq. Chuck Hagel, as senator, voted to give the president the authority to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he later was very critical of how those wars were being conducted. How much do you think of the Republican opposition to him now is because he's viewed as a turncoat; a Republican who bucked the party on those wars?

ABRAMS: Well, some of it I think is because of the way in which he did that. To change your mind is fine. But he said in 2007 that the surge was, quote, "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Now, that's the kind of hyperbolic language that he used against the Bush administration. He didn't disagree. He campaigned against the Bush administration.

BLOCK: It is very rare for the Senate to vote to defeat a Cabinet nomination. As you know, it's happened just twice since World War II. The last time was in 1989 with John Tower, the defense secretary nominee then. Are you saying that you think Chuck Hagel should be defeated, should join that very small group of nominees who don't get past the Senate?

ABRAMS: I think he has a chance at his confirmation hearing to show that he is not what he appears to be, which is frankly an anti-Semite. It's not just being anti-Israel. He's got a problem with what he calls "the Jews," the Jewish lobby. I think if he cannot satisfy people that he is not, in fact, bigoted against Jews, he certainly should not be confirmed.

BLOCK: You're saying, Mr. Abrams, that you consider Chuck Hagel to be an anti-Semite, not just have to positions on Israel that you don't agree with, but that you consider him to be an anti-Semite.

ABRAMS: I think if you look at the statements by Hagel, and then you look at the statements by the Nebraska Jewish community - about his unresponsiveness to them, his dismissal of them, his hostility to them - I don't understand really how you can reach any other conclusion that he seems to have some kind of problem with Jews.

BLOCK: Chuck Hagel, though, in his defense, says he voted time and time again to provide billions of dollars of U.S. military and security aid to Israel. In his book, he wrote this: At its core, there will always be a special and historic bond with Israel, exemplified by our continued commitment to Israel's defense. That doesn't sound like an anti-Semitic statement.

ABRAMS: No, it sounds like the statement of somebody who had been considering running for president. I think it's very much like his apology when it comes to gay rights. This kind of stuff comes in a political context, not in the context of a real change in position. And you see that in the interview with Aaron Miller, again, the Jewish lobby and I'm not an Israeli senator.

There's an animus here, an animus that was visible to the Jews of Nebraska. And that's what the committee needs to look into.

BLOCK: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Abrams, thank you very much.

ABRAMS: You're very welcome.


CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.