Republicans oppose Hagel to save their flawed ideology

Barack Obama is building a sound, pragmatic foreign affairs and defence team - if the Senate will let him.

There has been intense debate in the United States over former Republican senator Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defence.

At times Mr Hagel's opponents have been a touch hysterical, indulging in excessively harsh rhetorical attacks. At first, they charged that he was not sufficiently pro-Israel or hawkish enough on Iran. But then, as is often the case, Mr Hagel's opponents began to hyperventilate, upping the ante by claiming that the senator was anti-Semitic or "obsessively addicted to dialogue" with Islamic extremist movements.

Mr Hagel was, to be sure, vigorously defended by stalwarts in the foreign policy establishment. In the end, despite the virulent attacks emanating mainly from the leading lights of the neoconservative movement and right wing pro-Israel groups, President Barack Obama did, in fact, nominate Mr Hagel to be his next defence secretary.

I know Mr Hagel. He is a thoughtful and sober advocate of the realist approach to foreign policy. His priority has always been to defend America's interests in the world through diplomacy and, only when absolutely necessary, to commit American forces to combat missions in defence of those interests.

By disposition, he has an aversion to ideologically-based reckless behaviour. His criticism of the war in Iraq, his opposition to the reckless use of force against Iran, and his critique of Israeli actions that impede peace are well-known.

There were moments when I expected the Obama administration to avoid further conflict by throwing Mr Hagel overboard and picking a different nominee. That Mr Obama didn't do that, and instead offered a strong endorsement of Mr Hagel, was a very good sign. But the fight is not over yet.

Republicans see the possibility of further weakening and distracting the president by "roughing up" his nominee; they will in all likelihood subject Mr Hagel to tough grilling when he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation. Their questions will, no doubt, focus on his support for Israel and his attitudes towards Iran. And they will want him to demonstrate that he is more committed to Israel and more hawkish on Iran than he has been in the past.

While I certainly hope that Mr Hagel won't fold under the pressure, I am bracing myself for a degree of disappointment. And while I believe the president is committed and will fight for his nominee, I am also prepared to acknowledge that Mr Hagel's confirmation is not a sure thing.

That's because what's at stake for Republicans is far more than just Israel and Iran. It is the entire neoconservative enterprise that led the US into two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which they cannot admit were failures) and has them still advocating aggressive military engagements in Syria and Iran.

A US national security team led by Senator John Kerry (tapped to replace Hillary Clinton as the next secretary of state) and Mr Hagel will not only be more compatible with President Obama's world view, but will make possible a dramatic departure from the foreign policy that neoconservatives have promoted and maintained for the past decade. A confirmation of Mr Hagel will open the door to debate allowing the opportunity for realists to put US national security policy on a more sober and less ideological footing.

Mr Hagel's confirmation, especially if he resists embracing language that demonstrates subservience to Israel, will also represent a threat to the power of the pro-Israel lobby to use intimidation to dictate Congressional behaviour.

One thing should be clear, however: if Mr Hagel is confirmed there will not be a radical change in the Obama administration's approach to Israel nor an American acceptance of an Iran with nuclear weapons. Mr Hagel and Mr Kerry, like Mr Obama, are supporters of Israel. The White House will continue to support Israel's defence requirements and, in all likelihood, will not rush headlong into a new Middle East peace initiative since they appear to believe that conditions for success simply do not exist.

At the same time, Israel will continue to face growing US displeasure with its occupation and settlement policies. And the administration will not end its pressure on Iran to be more transparent with its nuclear ambitions and agree with the international community's insistence that they forsake advanced enrichment.

But if all goes to Mr Obama's plan, his administration will be fortified by a team that understands that engagement and not foolish adventurism is the best way to resolve the standoff and insure that the US is not dragged into another potentially devastating Middle East war.

At this point, we know what the stakes are, but have no way of knowing how this will play out. Will Mr Hagel fold? Will Mr Obama surrender to pressure and pull his nominee, risking defeat and embarrassment? Or will the Senate defeat Mr Hagel's bid for confirmation? Any of these would be a setback of substantial proportions.

On the other hand should Mr Hagel stay the course, making clear his support for Israel while asserting his freedom and independence to criticise Israeli policies when necessary, and should Democrats decide to choose to support their president instead of the lobby and the pressure from the neocons, then we might well be on our way to a healthier political environment, where realism trumps ideology and where honest political differences can be debated without fear of retribution.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa