Congressional obstructionism in Washington is hardly newsworthy anymore. Regardless of political affiliation, it is difficult to dispute that Republicans have almost wholly dedicated themselves to stymieing Democratic legislation backed by President Barack Obama. This is not necessarily a bad thing. There exist legitimate and significant ideological differences between the two parties, and Republican members of Congress have the legal right to oppose any efforts with which they disagree. In fact, more than a few of these members were elected by their constituencies in direct protest of the president's policy positions. However, there is a thin line separating ideological dissent from reflexive opposition under the guise of maintaining values. Recent events have provided us with a shining example of the latter, with Israel serving as the principal issue at stake.
As the president began his second term, he faced an exodus of sorts from his cabinet. Three high-level officials the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense all left for greener pastures. After a bit of conflict over Susan Rice's candidacy for Secretary of State, John Kerry was installed in the position with a broad coalition of support. In the Treasury, Jack Lew succeeded Timothy Geithner with little fanfare. But then Republicans decided to take the president's nominee for Defense Secretary and rake him over the coals.
Interestingly enough, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., is a Republican himself. There was some precedent for Hagel's nomination in terms of party affiliation, as Robert Gates, Obama's first Defense Secretary and a holdover from the Bush Administration, was also a Republican. However, congressional Republicans, in a wonderfully ironic display of seeing past party labels, dedicated their full efforts to opposing Hagel's candidacy. Although Republicans are a minority in the Senate, the congressional chamber responsible for confirming executive nominees, they nonetheless managed to drag Hagel through an impressive spectacle of outrage and indignation.
The origins of this vitriol, perhaps unsurprisingly, lie in one of the permanent hot-spots of the American political scene: Israel. Years ago, Hagel made a series of comments to the press that did not fall in line with the Republican dogma that prescribes a blind pro-Israeli stance. Specifically, he stated that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people on Capitol Hill" and that "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator."
To reasonable people, these statements were unremarkable and simple expressions of fact. The former statement acknowledges the widely accepted reality that pro-Israeli lobbying organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee exert tremendous pressure on politicians to support positions adopted by conservative Israeli governments. In return for campaign contributions and promises not to paint politicians as anti-Semitic, senators and congressmen are expected to adopt a vociferous defense of Israeli practices ranging from settlements in the occupied territories to arguably excessive military responses to perceived external threats. The latter statement is an admirable pledge of allegiance on Hagel's part. He simply acknowledged that, as a senator, his duty is to the U.S., not to the state of Israel or any lobbying organization, however potent, that seeks to advance Israeli causes.
During his confirmation hearings, Hagel was treated by various Republicans with a contempt that approached outright hostility. The American public was subjected to hyperbolic foaming-at-the-mouth, the kind that recently assumed an exalted place in our political scene, that painted Hagel as something resembling an anti-Semite, a bigot and a traitor. Eventually, after the theater had run its course, the nominee was confirmed by a vote largely along party lines.
However, the entire process was emblematic of two problems in Washington. The first is, of course, a knee-jerk and somewhat dangerous sense of loyalty to Israeli causes that discourages the recognition of nuance and the adoption of moderation with regards to Middle East policy. The second is a similarly reflexive partisan mentality that separates the domestic political scene into disparate factions and paints policy issues in broad, bold strokes. Hopefully Hagel will serve as a voice of reason in the midst of all the shouting and hyperventilation. Israel, meanwhile, has no reason to worry provided it realizes that said voice of reason is not akin to abandoning an ally.