BY JOE CONASON
When Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned on national television over the weekend that Chuck Hagel “would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history,” either his memory served him very poorly – or he was simply lying to smear his former Senate colleague. For whatever Hagel’s perspective on Mideast policy may be, it would be absurd to compare him with the Secretary of Defense whose hardline hostility toward Israel became notorious during the Reagan Administration.
That would be the late Caspar W. Weinberger, of course.
Weinberger, a longtime Reagan confidant, ran the Pentagon from 1981 until 1987, when he was forced to resign over his involvement in the cover-up of the Iran-Contra affair [a ruinous scandal that involved the secret sale of missiles to the Iranian mullahs and the illegal transfer of profits from those sales to the Nicaraguan contra rebels – and that almost sent Weinberger to prison along with more than a dozen administration officials].
In contrast to other members of the Reagan cabinet known for their sympathy toward the Jewish state, including Secretary of State George Shultz and the president himself, Weinberger developed a reputation not only for opposing Israel’s interests directly but for seeking to prevent any action, including counter-terrorist operations, that might upset Arab allies of the United States.
Until the Iran-Contra scandal broke in 1986, Weinberger was perhaps best known for orchestrating the sale of AWACS jets – the highly advanced airborne surveillance, command and control system built by Boeing – to Saudi Arabia. Opposed by Israel and much of the American Jewish community, the Saudi AWACS deal generated enormous controversy.
Weinberger’s views on the Mideast were often said to derive from his career at Bechtel Corporation, the mammoth international construction firm where, as general counsel, he had approved compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel. Construction in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states was a major source of profits for Bechtel, and the firm’s support of the boycott was so blatant that Edward Levi, a Republican attorney general, filed a civil lawsuit against the California-based company, which led to a consent decree and prolonged litigation.
Among the most outspoken sources on Weinberger’s record was retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the former Reagan White House aide and intelligence operative who oversaw the Iran-Contra fiasco. In his 1992 memoir Under Fire, North explained what everyone in Washington had long known about the former Defense Secretary: [Weinberger] seemed to go out of his way to oppose Israel on any issue and to blame the Israelis for every problem in the Middle East. In our planning for counterterrorist operations, he apparently feared that if we went after Palestinian terrorists, we would offend and alienate Arab governments – particularly if we acted in cooperation with the Israelis.
Weinberger’s anti-Israel tilt was an underlying current in almost every Mideast issue. Some people explained it by pointing to his years with the Bechtel Corporation … Others believed it was more complicated, and had to do with his sensitivity about his own Jewish ancestry.
As an Episcopalian whose paternal grandparents converted to Christianity – and who later worked at Bechtel, a company with a terrible reputation for anti-Semitism – Weinberger’s personal feelings about Jews and Judaism may well have been “complicated.” But his record as defense secretary was straightforward enough – and considering that Graham is a self-styled expert on Reagan Administration foreign policy, the South Carolina senator certainly ought to know it.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer