Many Senate Republicans warmly welcomed Kerry’s nomination. Several of them, led by John McCain, had earlier urged Obama to choose Kerry instead of Rice.
Kerry has compiled a solidly pro-Israel voting record in the Senate, but has also been an outspoken critic of Israel’s West Bank settlement policies. When Kerry was the Democrat nominee for president in 2004, his record on Israel raised no objections from American Jewish and pro-Israel organizations.
Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a congratulatory statement praising Kerry for his “considerable experience” and his record as “a known supporter of the security of Israel.” He added that, “John Kerry and I have been friends for many years. I very much appreciated the fact that six months ago, after my father passed away, he came to visit me during the week of mourning. I look forward to working together with him.”
Several other Israeli political leaders issued similar congratulatory statements, as well as a number of left wing American Jewish organizations. However, Morris Amitay, former executive director of AIPAC, recalled that Kerry rarely took the lead in pro-Israel initiatives in the Senate. “I would not list him among the more enthusiastic supporters of Israel, but certainly it’s a fine record,” Amitay said.
However, in 2009, Kerry embarrassed Netanyahu during his first visit to the Washington after becoming prime minister by openly criticizing Israel’s West Bank construction policies.
Kerry worked with McCain in 1995 to normalize US relations with Vietnam. Last year, he partnered with McCain to push Obama to implement the no-fly zone in Libya which led to the overthrow of Moammar Gadhaffi.
He and Obama have been friends since Kerry gave Obama his first national exposure as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democrat National Convention. Obama reportedly considered making Kerry secretary of state before he offered the post to Clinton.
Over the past four years, Kerry has undertaken foreign missions to help smooth US relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan. He reached out to Syrian president Bashar Assad on behalf of Obama before the White House finally severed its relationship with the Syrian regime. He also has been accused of engaging in a dialogue with Hamas leaders.
On domestic policy issues, Kerry shares Obama’s liberal positions on such issues as global warming and nuclear disarmament.
KERRY’S JEWISH ROOTS
Kerry’s paternal grandparents, Fritz and Ida Kohn, were Jews. They lived in Austria, changed their names to Kerry and converted to Catholicism in 1902. They immigrated to the US in 1905.
Kerry first came to national attention in 1970 as one of the first decorated Vietnam War veterans to speak out openly against the war in congressional testimony, in which he blasted the behavior of US servicemen.
Kerry was elected to the Senate in 1984, and has been a leader of the liberal wing of the Democrat party. He famously supported the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, but then turned against it when he ran for president in 2004.
Despite Kerry’s extensive foreign policy experience, Washington observers expect Obama and his inner circle of White House advisors to maintain their tight control over foreign policy.
“There’s every reason to believe that we’re going to have a very White House-centric foreign policy,” said David J. Rothkopf, the chief executive of the Foreign Policy Group. “Kerry is going to have to show his loyalty and willingness to work within the Obama system.”
Elliott Abrams, who held key foreign policy positions in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, agreed that like Clinton, as Secretary of State, Kerry is likely to be “on the road a lot, interfacing with foreign leaders, but the decision-making will be done at the White House.”
CLINTON DODGES BLAME FOR THE BENGHAZI DISASTER
Earlier last week, an eagerly anticipated report was released by a blue-ribbon Accountability Review Board headed by veteran former ambassador Thomas Pickering and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen on the September 11 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. It exposed how the State Department, under Clinton, bungled requests for more security from ambassador Chris Stevens and the consulate staff, and how the CIA, which ran its own operation in Benghazi under a State Department cover seemed ignorant of the extent of the terrorist threat in the area.
These mistakes led directly to the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate and its annex. None of the criticism in the report was directed at Clinton.
Instead, the blame for the Benghazi disaster was fixed on four mid-level State Department bureaucrats, who were immediately suspended or forced to resign. They are seen as scapegoats, leaving Clinton’s reputation largely unscathed.
JUDGING CLINTON’S RECORD AS SECRETARY OF STATE
The mainstream media has played up Clinton’s performance as Obama’s secretary of state as enhancing her presidential credentials, but it has largely overlooked her responsibility for Obama’s disastrous foreign policies. These include the failure to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s president, allowing the country to fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, the chaos spreading from the civil war in Syria, and the Obama administration’s heavy-handed efforts to pressure Israel into concessions to the Palestinians.
Finally, Clinton must be held at least partially accountable for the diminished US leadership role around the world during her tenure as secretary of state.
Clinton managed to avoid having to testify at congressional hearings last week on the Benghazi attack. She said she was still recovering from a politically well-timed concussion due to a fall in her home earlier this month. Instead, her deputies, William Burns and Thomas Nides had to answer probing questions from Republicans who have been systematically thwarted by the administration in their quest to uncover the truth about who was responsible for the Benghazi mess. That includes White House attempts to cover up those failures, and its inadequate response on the night of the attack.
Clinton was also unavailable a few days after the attack to explain to the American public what happened at Benghazi claiming exhaustion from her heavy foreign travel schedule. Instead, the White House sent out Susan Rice to sell a bogus version of the Benghazi incident on national television.
Clinton has rescheduled her testimony before Congress on the Benghazi attack for next month, presumably after Kerry has been confirmed as her replacement, when she will no longer be actively involved in Obama’s foreign policy.
By contrast, Rice’s willing involvement in the White House effort to cover-up the truth of the Benghazi attack for the benefit of Obama’s re-election campaign ultimately torpedoed her ambition to become Obama’s secretary of state. Despite the president’s personal efforts to come to her defense, attacks upon her motives for misleading the American people made it impossible to receive Senate confirmation to that post.
Even before Rice got involved in the Benghazi cover-up, many questioned whether she would be suitable as secretary of state because of her sharp tongue and aggressive personal style. She also has a record at the State Department, during the Clinton administration years, of supporting African despots.
Even though she will not achieve her ambition to become secretary of state, Rice is expected to retain her influence as a foreign policy advisor to Obama during his second term.
WHO WILL TAKE OVER KERRY’S SENATE SEAT?
The primary down side for Democrats to appointing Kerry as secretary of state is that it will open up his Massachusetts Senate seat to a Republican challenger in a special election to complete the unfinished portion of his term, which ends in 2014. Republican Scott Brown won such a special election for the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in January 2010, at the height of the grass roots opposition to Obama’s failed first term financial policies.
But Brown lost that seat in November to ultra-liberal Elizabeth Warren, who beat him by a 54-46 margin in a hard fought campaign.
The size of Warren’s November victory would indicate that Massachusetts voters have largely reverted to their predominantly Democrat voting patterns, reducing Brown’s chances of winning a second special election victory for a vacant Senate seat. Nevertheless, because he was remained popular with Massachusetts voters during his two years in the Senate, he is clearly the strongest candidate the Republicans could put up for Kerry’s seat.
CONTROVERSY SWIRLS AROUND HAGEL FOR THE PENTAGON
Obama is considering naming former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska for the post of defense secretary, to replace Leon Panetta. The possibility has elicited protests from a variety of sources, including left wing special interest groups, Jewish leaders and friends of Israel.
Hagel is a Vietnam War veteran, and served for a year as a deputy chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs at the start of the Reagan administration. During his two terms in the Senate, Hagel served on the Foreign Relations Committee.
He started out supporting the invasion of Iraq, but eventually broke with President George W. Bush over the war. He criticized Bush’s 2007 Iraq troop surge strategy, which ultimately won the war, as “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
His opposition to the Iraq war first endeared Hagel to Obama, when they were both in the Senate, and led to a continuing friendship.
In response to his critics, the White House cautiously came to Hagel’s defense. Without acknowledging that he is being considered for a cabinet post, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that “Hagel fought and bled for his country. He served his country well. He was an excellent senator.” Obama’s spokesman did not address any of the many specific criticisms aimed at Hagel’s record.
After retiring from the Senate in 2008, Hagel publicly criticized the Republican Party for being too conservative, but he had burned his bridges with GOP leaders long before that. While still a senator, he condemned Bush’s policies in a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations as “incompetent.” He voted against confirmation of Bush’s 2005 nomination of John Bolton to serve as US ambassador to the UN. Hagel’s appointment as defense secretary would not win Obama any good will from his former Republican colleagues.
CRITICISM FROM FELLOW REPUBLICANS
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who was one of Susan Rice’s most outspoken critics, and who will participate when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds confirmation hearings on whoever Obama nominates to be defense secretary expressed serious doubts about Hagel’s qualifications.
“A lot of Republicans are going to ask him hard questions,” Graham predicted. “And I don’t think he’s going to get many Republican votes. I like Chuck. But his positions. . . are really out of the mainstream, and well to the left of the president. I think it’ll be a challenging nomination. But the hearings will matter.”
Graham said that he had unanswered questions about Hagel’s views on Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel and Afghanistan. He added that Hagel had made “very troubling comments by a future secretary of defense.”
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio does not like Hagel’s record on Cuban issues.
SCHUMER REFUSES TO ENDORSE HAGEL’S NOMINATION
Appearing on the same interview program with Graham, Jewish Democrat Senator Charles Schumer, who likes to boast about his support for Israel, cautiously declined to criticize Hagel when asked whether Obama should name him as defense secretary. Schumer said, “Well, that’s his choice. I think once he makes it, his record will be studied carefully.”
When Schumer was asked directly whether he could support Hagel’s nomination, he replied, “I’d have to study his record. I’m not going to comment until the president makes a nomination.”
Schumer’s refusal to criticize Hagel’s potential candidacy was seen as another example of a Jewish politician who loves to portray himself as the best friend of Israel in Congress, but lacks the courage to stand up and condemn the administration’s support for Israel’s enemies when it counts.
If Hagel is forced to withdraw his candidacy for a cabinet post as Susan Rice was, that would further damage Obama’s political clout.
Jewish Congressman Elliot Engel, who will be the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year, said in an interview that Hagel has “some kind of an endemic hostility toward Israel. And that’s troublesome for me and for a lot of other people.”
Others who have questioned Hagel’s qualifications for defense secretary include Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, who is a former editor of the Jerusalem Post. Weekly Standard columnist William Krystol wrote that Hagel has “a record of consistent hostility to Israel.”
Even the Washington Post’s editorial page, which usually supports Obama, opposed Hagel’s possible nomination. It called Hagel “isolated in his views about Iran during his time in the Senate. He repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against US troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior.”
The editorial questioned whether Hagel would properly implement a decision by Obama to use force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons if he were defense secretary, should Obama ever go so far.
The National Journal a Washington political publication, has reported that in light of the widespread criticism of Hagel, Obama is now considering appointing Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter as defense secretary in his place.
HAGEL WAS THE MOST ANTI-ISRAEL SENATOR
Hagel’s qualifications for the post were praised by Carl Levin, the Democrat chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee. Several Jewish leaders from both parties said that they spoke to Obama about their concerns about Hagel at the annual White House Chanukah party earlier this month.
One Jewish Democrat predicted that Hagel’s nomination would trigger a political controversy “10 times” more bitter than the one which compelled Rice to withdraw her name from cabinet consideration.
While he was a Republican senator, Hagel was a frequent target of criticism by both Democrat and Republican national Jewish groups.
He was one of the worst senators in recent memory when it comes to Israel, and his appointment to serve as defense secretary, overseeing US military cooperation with Israel would be a terrible idea.
There was also a Jewish outcry against Hagel when Obama appointed him to serve as a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, for fear of his influence on the administration’s foreign policy.
“If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns,” Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s Jewish Outreach Director and the former Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), told The Weekly Standard.
HAGEL’S MISERABLE RECORD ON ISRAEL
In 2007, when Hagel briefly considered making a run for the Republican presidential nomination, the NJDC published a devastating record of Hagel’s anti-Israel record:
In August 2006, Hagel was one of only 12 members of the Senate who refused to sign a statement asking the EU to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
In October 2000, he was one of only 4 members who refused to sign a Senate letter of support for Israel.
In November 2001, Hagel was one of 11 senators refusing to sign a letter urging President George W. Bush not to meet with Yassir Arafat while his forces conducted the terrorist intifada against Israel.
In December 2005, Hagel refused to sign a letter to Bush supporting a ban on terrorist groups, including Hamas, from participating in Palestinian legislative elections. Bush ignored that letter, allowing Hamas to win the election.
In June 2004, Hagel refused to sign a letter urging Bush to raise Iran’s nuclear program at a G-8 summit.
Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, in a rare moment of agreement with the liberal NJDC, called Hagel. “one of the most hostile critics of Israel that has ever been in the Senate.”
Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, compares Hagel to former President Jimmy Carter and Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for his criticism of Jewish influence in Washington, which “borders on anti-Semitism.”
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch said that by appointing Hagel, Obama would “give comfort to the Arab world” and make it seem that he “is seeking to put space between Israel and his administration.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left wing J Street lobbying group, which has called for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, got widespread press coverage when he denounced what he said was a “smear campaign” against Hagel.
HAGEL PRAISED BY ARABS AS THEIR FAVORITE CANDIDATE
Hagel’s Middle East policies also won the approval from the pro-Arab Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which was a created by the Muslim Brotherhood. In assessing the presidential field of 2008, CAIR singled out Hagel as the only candidate who did not “fall all over himself to express support for Israel.”
Hagel was quoted in a 2008 book by Middle East expert Aaron David Miller saying that, “the political reality is that… the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [in Washington].”
In a major foreign policy speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington, in the summer of 2006, during the Second Lebanon war Hagel said:
“Military action alone will not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas. Extended military action will tear apart Lebanon, destroy its economy and infrastructure, create a humanitarian disaster, further weaken Lebanon’s fragile democratic government, strengthen popular Muslim and Arab support for Hezbollah, and deepen hatred of Israel across the Middle East. The pursuit of tactical military victories at the expense of the core strategic objective of Arab-Israeli peace is a hollow victory. The war against Hezbollah and Hamas will not be won on the battlefield.”
HAGEL SUPPORTED THE 2002 SAUDI PEACE PLAN
Hagel urged President George W. Bush to appoint a former secretary of state such as James Baker or Colin Powell to serve as his personal Middle East envoy to support the peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia to the Arab League in 2002, which would force Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. Hagel supported the now widely discredited idea that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based upon Israeli capitulation “would offer a positive alternative vision for Arab populations to the ideology and goals of Islamic militants.”
In the same speech, Hagel endorsed direct US negotiations with the leaders of Syria and Iran. Hagel’s 2006 ideas were roughly consistent with the Middle East policies which Obama pursued during his first term. They impeded progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and gave Iran another four years to develop nuclear weapons.
After reviewing Hagel’s record toward Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition concluded that “for the President to elevate Hagel to a position of trust would be construed as a gesture of indifference — if not outright contempt — toward Jewish Americans and every American who supports a strong US-Israel alliance.”
The group’s director, Matt Brooks, put it more bluntly, saying that, “The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel.”
The Washington Post contributed to this story.