North: Send in the clowns

TIBERIAS, Israel — Atop the Golan Heights, there are thousands of fruit trees, vineyards, acres of wheat, vegetables, herds of cattle and a half-million or more land mines. The livestock and produce were brought here and cultivated by Israeli citizen-soldiers — people who beat their swords into plowshares to wrest farmland from a battlefield. The land mines were planted by the Syrian army. The Golan plateau is an object lesson for American policymakers who believe that the Israelis need only trade a little more land in exchange for peace. It just isn’t so.

While we were en route to the Golan plateau, the U.S. Senate confirmed John Kerry as America’s new secretary of state. Kerry says “the Mideast peace process” is his “No. 1 priority.” By the time we returned to this ancient city beside the Sea of Galilee, the Senate Armed Services Committee had commenced confirmation hearings on former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s fitness to serve as secretary of defense.

Watching “news” from the United States in a foreign country is often a surreal experience. My natural default mode when I’m overseas is to defend my country, but the Hagel hearings made this task challenging, to say the least. The Israelis watching the “highlight reel” frequently asked questions such as, “Why would Obama pick a person who hates Jews to be your secretary of defense?” What’s the pro-American answer to that?

From here, Hagel looks “confused,” “uncertain” and “ignorant of reality.” And those are among the kindest observations appearing in Israel’s English-language media. His bewildering, deer-in-the-headlights muddle about the Obama administration’s “containment policy” toward Iran’s nuclear weapons program was undoubtedly acclaimed by the ayatollahs in Tehran. But here in Israel, it affirmed the worst fears of people who see Iranian nuclear weapons as an existential threat to the survival of the Jewish state.

There were many other issues in which Hagel provided perplexing, even alarming, responses to questions posed by Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. For those of us who served in the Vietnam War, the exchange with Sen. John McCain about the “surge” in Iraq was simply bizarre. McCain asked Hagel whether he stood by a statement in 2007 that the surge in Iraq represented “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” Before the surge, he said, “If it’s carried out, I will resist it.”

In a lengthy and heated back-and-forth, McCain repeatedly challenged Hagel on whether he still agreed that the Iraq surge was a mistake. Hagel refused to answer. Unfortunately, nobody asked a far more important question: What was it about Vietnam that Hagel considers to be a “blunder”?

The answer to that question might well have been more revealing about Hagel’s perspective on current events than a debate over whether George W. Bush made the right decision in 2006 to put 30,000 more American troops into the fight in the Land Between the Rivers. Does Hagel — a Vietnam War veteran — think it was wrong that America honored its treaty commitments with the Republic of Vietnam? Does he recall that American combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1972? Does he recall that the North Vietnamese invasion and victory April 30, 1975, came less than five months after the U.S. Congress cut off all military aid to the Republic of Vietnam?

America — and the Defense Department Hagel wants to head — is now commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. There is no question about the outcome. After 12 years of war, the North Vietnamese finally conquered their southern neighbor. Millions died and fled the country we pledged to defend. But the war wasn’t lost on the battlefields of Vietnam. It was lost in the corridors of power in Washington. Does Hagel consider the “blunder” of Vietnam to be our getting into the fight? Or was it our precipitous withdrawal and removal of all support?

Those are the kinds of questions that should have been asked — and that Israelis are now asking privately as they await the outcome of these hearings. Hagel says, inexplicably, that he isn’t going to be a “policymaker” if he becomes secretary of defense. Officials here know better — but none of them is going to go on the record about Barack Obama’s appointments.

Privately, they note: “There is chaos and turmoil all around us. Washington tells us sanctions will stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. Forty years of sanctions haven’t kept the North Koreans from building atomic bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Will the U.S. honor its commitments to us?”

After news broke about Obama’s plan to visit Israel, one of my friends shook his head, took out his smartphone and pressed a button. From the tiny speaker came Frank Sinatra singing “Send in the Clowns.”

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