The US government is becoming a textbook example of dysfunction. Everyone thinks that about their government, with good reason. I will not, in this space, try to compare American dysfunction to that of any other country. But it’s time to look at how bad the situation has become, as it has been highlighted by the circus surrounding the confirmation of ex-Senator Chuck Hagel as the new Secretary of Defense.
As of this article’s writing, Republicans have successfully filibustered the vote on Hagel. The filibuster is not a uniquely American parliamentary tool, but it is in the United States that the method of speaking and holding the Senate floor indefinitely to prevent a vote finds its fullest expression. Its use and misuse has long been something of a running joke among congressional observers from all sides of the political spectrum. However, in the past four years, with a Republican party whose declared strategy is to obstruct Barack Obama no matter what the consequences to the country may be, almost any vote might now be held hostage to the filibuster.
This was merely one act in a prolonged series of shenanigans, all of which have been performed despite the fact that several Republicans have stated that they believe Chuck Hagel will be confirmed, agreeing with virtually every pundit from across the political spectrum on that point. It started with comments from Republicans questioning his stances on Iran, Hezbollah and, of course, devotion to Israel. It continued as Republicans brought up the already fully dissected issue of the attack on the US embassy at Benghazi, Libya, eventually using it as an excuse to block the vote on Hagel, even though he had nothing to with the attack. That’s when the show really started at the retired legislator’s confirmation hearing.
Chuck Hagel came off as flustered and a bit befuddled at the hearing, while devotion to Israel took center stage among the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who were questioning him. A few days later, an amusing spin on this appeared: the long-running comedy show, Saturday Night Live filmed a spoof of the hearings, with each Senator fighting with the others to establish his own love of Israel as supreme. One pseudo-senator even asked the Hagel character if he would fellate a donkey if Israel’s security depended on it.
The piece never aired, but it gained quite a following on YouTube. This prompted the leading fomenter of anti-Semitism, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League to communicate his displeasure to the show’s producers. His problem was that some would see the skit and say, “Yeah, it’s funny, but there is some truth to all of this.” The objection is odd on its face; anyone who saw the hearings would have that thought, with or without the SNL act. But by raising the issue in so defensive a manner, Foxman made sure that the issue of anti-Semitism would be woven in with Hagel.
Once the SASC voted to bring Hagel’s nomination to the floor, the filibuster game began. All of this served as proof to many that Israel was the issue, and the Israel Lobby was fighting the President of the United States over his Defense Secretary. Not so much to derail the appointment, as to make it difficult and embarrassing, and to weaken Obamas cabinet going forward, especially in its dealings with Congress.
This time, though, I disagree. Oh, the Israel Lobby was involved, especially its radical, neo-conservative wing, represented by such lunatic fringe groups as the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Emergency Committee for Israel, and Commentary Magazine. And, to be sure, those organizations aren’t acting without some contact with AIPAC and the mainstream of the Israel Lobby. But there are several reasons why I don’t see this as being primarily driven by the Lobby.
AIPAC treasures its bi-partisan reach. Indeed, during the Bush Administration, when the neocons in the “pro-Israel” Lobby were gaining influence and tilting AIPAC toward the Republicans, there was considerable internal consternation about this. The Lobby itself has many true believers among the Republicans while the hold on the Democrats tends to come much more from lobbying and campaign finance efforts.
AIPAC works much more with Democrats, which, not incidentally, is the party the vast majority of American Jews support. But the bi-partisan reach is a key to AIPAC’s massive influence in Congress, and it is not something they want to lose, so a partisan fight like this one is not something they tend to encourage. Moreover, the speed with which some Democrats, particularly Chuck Schumer of New York, signed on to Hagel’s appointment, indicates they were not getting much pressure from AIPAC, while Republicans really didn’t need a push to obstruct an Obama decision.
The heavy-handed tactics that were employed here are much more typical of the neoconservatives than of the savvier AIPAC. As an example, a few days ago, a high-profile ultra-right web site, Breitbart.com, published completely unsubstantiated allegations that Chuck Hagel had received money from a group called “Friends of Hamas,” and this became a part of the attacks on Hagel for a while. If AIPAC had been involved, they surely would have vetoed such a ham-handed and transparent scam as being counter-productive and insulting.
Without AIPAC throwing its weight behind the anti-Hagel campaign, the formidable Lobby loses much of its potency. The involvement of parts of the Lobby was there, and the more fanatical zealots were very loud and visible. However, they were not the drivers.
As much as the slavish congressional devotion to Israel is a symptom of the United States’ dysfunctional government, it is not the only one by a long shot. For most of US history, the big political parties have been at each other’s throats. But now, the Republican Party’s radical shift to the right and its adoption of an obstructionist program that crosses lines heretofore considered firm barriers has created a poisoned atmosphere that was on pathetic display during the Hagel debate.
In the Senate, it’s less absolute than in the House of Representatives. Thus, the well-liked John Kerry went largely unopposed into the Secretary of State’s office, after Obama’s possible first choice, Susan Rice was eliminated from consideration in the face of massive Republican opposition. Chuck Hagel, who made few friends in the Senate, was an outspoken legislator, who has publicly criticized his own Republican party, as well as the President for most of Hagel’s time in office, George W. Bush. That dislike helps to remove any party loyalty or collegial reluctance to act on the obstructionist program.
Then came individual politics. At first, it looked like the filibuster wouldn’t happen. Republicans, who are largely resigned to Hagel’s appointment, would cut their losses and move on. However, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina will be up for re-election next year and he is concerned that the perception of his constituents is that he has been too willing to work with Democrats and that he is not right wing enough. So, the Republican decided to lead the charge for the filibuster. Graham is close with Arizona Senator John McCain. A key figure in foreign policy in the Senate, McCain decided to help his pal by reversing his previously stated opposition to a filibuster. And, away we went.
In the end, the whole issue of Israel may have dominated the proceedings, but in this case, it was more a tool than a driving force. This was about a two-party system that never worked very well, and now does not work at all. It explains a great deal about why the United States is declining economically, and as an influence around the globe. Grand power struggles mixing with petty personal politics, and the mythical golden calf of Israel is now the cannonball they lob at each other.
This bodes ill for the United States as a whole. But in terms of the entrenched Israel-centric Middle East policy, it is an early sign of change. As Israel becomes more and more a right-wing issue (even among Jews) it is also becoming less important in reality, as the United States moves away from dependence on oil, and especially oil imports. To wit, the Obama Administration is working to shift foreign policy attention toward Asia and away from the Middle East.
The ridiculous contest to see who “loves Israel more” was on display for all to see during these proceedings and it wasn’t pretty. The pressure of the Israel Lobby, even when it was unusually muted, was brought into sharper relief. More and more liberals and old-school, Realist conservatives are seeing it for what it is: not an attempt to safeguard Jews from a repeat of the dangers of the past, but a vehicle for anti-Semitism, by pressuring the US into supporting an occupation that is looking every day more and more like an apartheid regime.