PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Bennis Report with Phyllis Bennis, who now joins us from Washington, D.C.
Phyllis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. She’s the author of many books, including Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INST. FOR POLICY STUDIES: Great to be with you, Paul.
JAY: So what have you been following this week?
BENNIS: Well, it’s been rather extraordinary to watch the developments around the trial balloon being floated about the possibility of former senator Chuck Hagel as a possible new secretary of defense in the second Obama term. He’s a very much Washington insider, a decorated military veteran, about as far from a pacifist or a peacenik as you could imagine. But he is getting the kind of treatment that even Susan Rice didn’t face. I mean, it’s been extraordinary to watch the attacks on him that come down around—.
JAY: Just to be clear, attacks coming from the Republicans against Obama’s balloon that he might be the new secretary of defense.
BENNIS: Right. And we should not forget that he’s a Republican. You know, Chuck Hagel’s a Republican.
The plan was he would be the Republican in the Democratic cabinet. He would be the secretary of defense. That’s been a tradition for a number of Democratic presidents. And certainly President Obama has been doing that early on as well.
You know, what they’re claiming, it’s really quite outrageous. The claims are basically two, because it isn’t just Republicans, all Republicans; it’s the neoconservatives who are outraged about the fact that Hagel was one of the first Republicans to say that the war in Iraq should be ended, their great project. And number two, he’s being attacked viciously by the pro-Israel lobby, viciously enough that mainstream media outlets, from The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The New York Times, are all coming out in his defense. And The Times, which has editorialized around this, identified his detractors, in particularly the pro-Israel lobby, as extremists. So the attacks on him are really coming from such an appalling lack of reality.
You know, this is a guy who’s a very much militarist Washington insider. He’s not a pacifist. He’s never going to say, there should not be, ever, consideration of war in Iran, for intance. But he is someone who will say and has said that war should be the very last option ever considered. And he’s willing to talk to Iran, he’s willing to talk to every potential enemy, with the goal of gaining some kind of diplomatic solution to make war unnecessary, exactly what you want in a secretary of defense.
Now, you know, Paul, if you and I were choosing, we’d have a whole different slate of candidates. But we’re not looking here at should it be Chuck Hagel or should it be Dennis Kucinich, or should it be Chuck Hagel versus Barbara Lee. Those are not the options. The options are, should it be Chuck Hagel or should it be somebody like Michèle Flournoy, who was the deputy secretary of defense in Obama’s first term and is very much a centrist, at best, on these issues, has never come out and said, that I know of, that the war in Iran would be a terrible thing, for instance, or the guy who’s the current deputy in the U.S. Department of Defense, in the Pentagon, who’s very much an insider bureaucrat, if you will, not an ideologue, which I suppose is good, but is somebody whose whole focus is on nonproliferation—and that’s always a dangerous idea when it’s not tied to disarmament, because then what you’re saying is disarmament for everybody else, but we get to keep our nuclear weapons.
So, you know, these are not good choices. And of these not-great choices, Chuck Hagel emerges as probably the best there is, and in the context where he’s being attacked so viciously by these powerful right-wing elements in the pro-Israel lobby and among the neocons. The idea that President Obama might actually cave in to that pressure would be a terrible thing to watch.
JAY: Now, it’s kind of interesting that Hagel was even floated. It does suggest that this is where Obama’s thinking is. I’ve commented several times on The Real News that in the primary campaign in 2008, President Obama on several occasions—then candidate Obama—on several occasions made what I thought was a kind of rational comments about Iran. One in particular was, if you didn’t want Iran to be such a major player in the region, you shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, but, you know, that’s happened now. He sort of has been more realistic that U.S. policy has to take into account Iran as a serious player in the region and you’d better deal with them. And then—.
BENNIS: Right. The problem is that we have not seen actions by the Obama administration to reflect anything close to those views. The efforts that we heard about—we will talk to Iran—and, of course, President Obama got a great deal of opposition when he said that. But the reality is we didn’t talk to Iran in any serious way. The entire one-on-one conversations between U.S. and Iranian officials over the last three years amounted to less than one hour. So if you’re serious about diplomacy, that’s not going to work.
JAY: Well, that was sort of my point. Is the floating of Hagel an actual attempt to say this next term, this is going to be—we’re going to get serious now, ’cause otherwise why do it?
BENNIS: It’s hard to say. I mean, I would not want to put a whole lot of confidence that Chuck Hagel is going to be out ahead of President Obama on this one, because, you know, Chuck Hagel comes from where he comes from. He is still a traditional Republican. He would be the head of the military. He has been willing to say that the military budget should be cut. That’s rather extraordinary for a Republican or for a potential secretary of defense.
It is certainly possible that it’s an indication and is being floated by the Obama White House precisely to assess where is public opinion on these questions of war with Iran, speeding up the withdrawal from Afghanistan, perhaps, but I don’t think we know that. I think at this point what we know for sure is that the far-right elements in the Republican Party, in the Israel lobby, are so much against him that the need to challenge that opposition, if you will, becomes one of the most important points.
JAY: And the Obama administration, they had to know this was going to be the reaction. I mean, AIPAC hates Chuck Hagel, and Hagel’s opposition to the—AIPAC was one of the organizations behind—in early—I believe it’s in early 2008 or late 2007, pushing this resolution calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard terrorist organization.
BENNIS: Right. And Hagel was one of those who said, this is crazy, you can’t—
JAY: Yeah, he said it was crazy.
BENNIS: —you can’t talk to people once you call them terrorists.
You know, this was—but we should also be careful, again. I think that understanding the danger of this campaign against Hagel and challenging this campaign against Hagel is very important, but I also think it’s important that we not have illusions about what Hagel actually represents and what the Obama administration may or may not be indicating with this trial balloon.
We should not forget what happened when another former senator, that being George Mitchell, was appointed right after Obama’s first inauguration, back in 2009. He was appointed to be the special envoy to the Middle East, to Israel and Palestine. And a lot of us, myself included, we were very excited about it, because we thought it meant that this was an indication of Obama’s very real commitment to the issue. And we all remembered that when Mitchell had come back from his work as the key operative behind the Good Friday accord in Northern Ireland, that one of the things he said was the most important lesson was the idea that if you’re serious about diplomacy, everybody has to be at the table and you can’t have one side excluded because they’re terrorists or another party excluded ’cause you don’t like them, that it’s not ’cause you like them, it’s because if it’s going to work, it has to be because everybody feels ownership. And we all thought that was a good indication of what it was going to take. It turned out it didn’t work.
JAY: Well, that’s my fear about the Hagel balloon is that what he’s there for, he’s there deliberately as a balloon that can burst, ’cause Obama actually wants somebody else, but if he can get Hagel floated and then throw him under the bus, it’s going to be hard for the Republicans to go after the second person.
BENNIS: Well, that could be, but I also think that if it happens that way, Obama will look incredibly weak on the eve of his inauguration. After the weakening of his presidency that came with his abandoning Susan Rice, who I had no [beef] with, and for all different reasons than what was being used to attack her, I did not want her to be the new secretary of state. But my reasons are different than those of those who were attacking her.
But nonetheless, the fact that the Obama White House did not come to her defense and say this is an outrage, that she’s being accused of incompetence, for example—she’s perfectly competent. That was not the problem. But the fact that they were willing to throw her under the bus is not a good sign. It ended up, I think, making President Obama himself look quite weak. He didn’t fight for his candidate. He didn’t fight for who he wants to be the member of his cabinet. If he does the same thing with Chuck Hagel, I think it will weaken him even further.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis. And we’re going to pick this up, I guess, early in the new year, and we’ll see whether President Obama actually does nominate Chuck Hagel or whether this is just a bunch of hot air. Thanks for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you. Always a pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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