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posted: 1/9/2013 5:00 AM

The tarring of Chuck Hagel

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Before they were girls, they were women. Before that, they were girls. I am not talking here of the chronology of females but of acceptable usage. Back in the 1970s, for instance, the use of "girl" could trigger a stinging rebuke and the damning charge of male chauvinist piggism -- or why else would a man call a woman a girl? This was the Golden Age of political correctness, which now, it seems, has its last redoubt on, of all places, the opinion pages of the robustly anti-PC Wall Street Journal. There, Chuck Hagel is accused of uttering the no-no phrase "the Jewish lobby" -- supposedly a virtual confession of anti-Semitism.

The absurdity of this charge, leveled by editorial writer and columnist Bret Stephens just last month, ought to be apparent to anyone who reads what Israelis themselves write. I direct Stephens and others to page 426 of Anita Shapira's new book, "Israel: A History." There, she writes that when the George H.W. Bush administration in 1992 withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, "enlisted the help of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Congress, but in vain." Shapira is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

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It is true, as Stephens writes, that Jews are not the only ones who support Israel, and it is likewise true that not all Jews support Israel -- or at least the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. But Stephens' real beef with Hagel is not over speech but policy. Not only does the former Nebraska senator and Barack Obama's choice for secretary of defense march to a different drummer, but in some cases the average ear can hear no drummer at all. On Iran, for instance, Hagel's preferred policy -- no sanctions but lots of talk -- would hardly compel Tehran to abandon its (strongly) suspected nuclear weapons program. That may not happen, anyway, but there's something to be said for the effort.

I, too, have some qualms about Hagel. He earned his wariness of war the hard way -- two Purple Hearts in Vietnam -- but sometimes muscle, not talk, is what works. And he has been remarkably retrograde when it comes to homosexuality. He opposed a Clinton administration ambassadorial nominee for being "openly, aggressively gay." Hagel has since recanted -- openly and aggressively.

The very best thing about Obama's choice of Hagel for the Pentagon is that the president did not back down as he did with Susan Rice. Still, a number of Hagel's fellow Republicans promise a fight, but they probably don't have the votes to block the nomination. Whatever his views, Hagel will be an implementer of policy, not its originator. Bob Gates, another Republican who served as Obama's secretary of defense, opposed U.S. intervention in Libya. Obama went ahead anyway and Gates made it happen. This is the way it's supposed to work.

The most depressing aspect of Hagel's nomination is not his severe case of Vietnam Syndrome and not even some of his foreign policy views. It's been the unremitting and underhanded attack on him, especially the imputation of anti-Semitism. In fact, he could be the necessary corrective to the Netanyahu government's expectation that anything Israel wants from Washington it's entitled to get. There is nothing Hagel has said about Israel that is not routinely said in the Israeli press on a daily basis. Trust me: By The Wall Street Journal's standards, Israeli media would be deeply anti-Semitic.

I thought the day had long passed when a skeptical attitude toward this or that Israeli policy would trigger charges of anti-Semitism. The accusation is so powerful -- so freighted with images of the Holocaust -- that it tends to silence all but the bravest or the most foolish. Israeli policy of late has been denounced by some steadfast champions of the Jewish state -- The New York Times' Thomas Friedman or The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, for example -- so being caustically critical is hardly evidence of anti-Semitism. Rather, it can be a sign of good judgment, not to mention a caring regard for the aspirations of Zionism.

The article that implied Hagel was a touch anti-Semitic was headlined "Chuck Hagel's Jewish Problem" and suggested that Hagel's statement that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [Congress]" had "the odor" of prejudice. A PC sort of guy might have put things more delicately: If there is an odor here, however, it is not the rancid stench of anti-Semitism but instead of character assassination.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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