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Hagel's Hell

Obama's Defense pick barely survives his Senate grilling

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel didn’t acquit himself well in the hearings that the Senate Armed Services Committee held today on his nomination to be Secretary of Defense. He was equivocal, often unconvincing, and seemed taken aback by questions that had been swirling around the rightwing blogosphere for weeks. But some of his Republican “inquisitors,” as freshman Senator Angus King described them, were rude, nasty, brutish, and, in the case of freshman Senator Ted Cruz, displayed a demagoguery reminiscent of the old Republican right wing of William Jenner and Joe McCarthy.

Hagel’s problem was in part that he has taken positions on Israel, Iran, and nuclear weapons that, while perfectly respectable among Washington policy experts, run counter to prevailing opinion among most Republican and some Democratic senators. In these hearings, Hagel got little opportunity to explain himself, and when he tried to mute or soften or even back away from these positions, he invited criticism  for “inconsistency.”

Hagel was asked repeatedly about his comments on Israel and on the “Jewish lobby.” The questions revealed the taboo that surrounds any discussion of American policy toward Israel and toward the organizations and individuals that lobby on its behalf. It wasn’t just the Republicans on this score. Democrats, like West Virginian Joe Manchin, felt called upon to declare that Israel is our “greatest ally.” Hagel’s dilemma was borne out in his exchange on the “Jewish lobby” with Lindsey Graham. 

Graham attacked Hagel for saying to author Aaron David Miller that the “Jewish  lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” Hagel first backed away by saying that he really meant “influences” not “intimidates.” Then, Graham asked him to name one person, in your opinion, who’s intimidated by the Israel lobby in the United States Senate.”  Hagel, looking flummoxed, replied, “I don’t know.” Hagel had also said the lobby does “dumb things” that are not “in the interest of Israel.” When Graham asked him to name some dumb things, he said, “Well I can’t give you an example.”

Graham clearly won this exchange, but by appealing to taboo not truth. I venture to guess that Graham himself knows plenty of Senators or House members who have been intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby, which generously donates to the opponents of politicians that defy it. But Hagel couldn’t name names, or cite “dumb things” without opening up a hornet’s nest of controversy that could doom his nomination in the clubby Senate. And there are “dumb things,” like the resolution last year to move the “red line” on war with Iran from developing nuclear weapons (the administration’s position) to developing the “capability” to produce nuclear weapons.

If I were Hagel, I don’t know how I would have dealt with Graham’s questions, but I’m not trying to win confirmation, and Hagel or his handlers should have been prepared for this line of attack. Instead, Hagel acted as if he was blindsided.  

Hagel had equal problems answering questions about Iran and about nuclear disarmament. In the past, Hagel has equivocated about whether he would pursue containment rather than prevention against Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who managed to be tough and fair at the same time—she actually allowed Hagel to answer her questions—asked him about a statement he made that a military option toward Iran was not viable, responsible or feasible.  That is an arguable position, and Hagel might have said that he no longer held it, or that he still held it, but would fully support the President’s policy toward Iran. Instead he insisted that the statement was “made in the context of all options regarding Iran.” His answer—one of his favorite words during the hearings was “context”—made no sense.

Ayotte also nailed him on a report that he had signed for an organization called Global Zero that supports the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. The commission’s goals were endorsed by a host of world leaders and the report itself was written by retired General James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It called to reduce America’s nuclear forces through negotiations or “unilaterally.” The report argues persuasively that the United States could accomplish its military aims with a reduced force. But when Ayotte asked him about the report’s support for unilateral reductions, Hagel insisted that the report was “not a recommendation” but an “illustration” of what could be done. That was, in my reading of the report, nonsense. Hagel should have had a better answer.

But other Republican questions lacked Ayotte’s manners or intellectual integrity. Arizona Sen. John McCain appears to be engaged in a personal vendetta against Hagel, who was the co-chair of McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, but broke with him over the Iraq war. McCain, who was partially responsible for plunging the nation into the Iraq War, tried to pinion Hagel for opposing the surge. Hagel tried to say history’s verdict on the surge (which cost 1,200 American dead, among others) was still not in, but McCain insisted on a “yes or no” answer to whether the surge was a good idea. He simply wouldn’t let Hagel answer. It was McCain at his most thuggish.

The committee’s ranking Republican is now Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. It’s probably charitable to say that Inhofe is a fool. He’s poorly informed and thoughtless. In his opening statement, he announced that he was opposing Hagel  because he was a “staunch advocate of the misguided policies of the president’s first term.” Should Obama have appointed someone who opposed his policies? Later, Inhofe asked Hagel, “My question if why do you think the Iranian foreign ministry supports your nomination as secretary of defense?” That was a question that Hagel could answer. “I have a difficult enough time understanding American politics,” he said.

But Cruz was the most vindictive and unscrupulous of the questioners. Unlike Ayotte, Cruz really did take Hagel’s comments out of context. He asked him why he charged Israel with committing a “sickening slaughter” in Lebanon in 2008. Hagel was totally unprepared for the question because he didn’t remember what he said. Referring to Israel and Hezbollah, Hagel actually said “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end, and it must end now. President Bush must call for an immediate cease-fire.” That’s an entirely different sentiment. Israel had reacted to Hezbollah’s provocation by attacking Lebanon. Many Israelis came believe their government had overreacted, but Hagel was blaming both sides.

In his closing round of questions, Cruz reverted to a time-honored rightwing tactic of guilt by association. He tried to tie Hagel to former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman who has voiced criticisms of Israel’s right-wing government. But Cruz’s line of questioning, apparently inspired by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin and William Kristol’s Weekly Standard, fell flat:

Cruz: Are you familiar with an individual named Chas Freeman?

Hagel: Yes

Cruz: He was a vice chairman at the Atlantic Council. Is that correct?

Hagel:  When I became chairman the Atlantic Council, he was one of my board members .. but I never really worked with him, but I know him..

Cruz: And you and he were part of a group that travelled to China. Is that correct?

Hagel: No, that’s not correct.

Cruz: There have been press reports to that effect.

Hagel: Those press reports have been incorrect.  I have never been on any trip with Chas Freeman.

Cruz: There has also been press reports that have described him as helped to defend your nomination?  Is that a correct description?

Hagel:  I haven’t spoken to Chas Freeman in years.. .

Cruz: Is he someone whose judgment you respect?

Hagel: I think Chars Freeman has been a repected public servant for this nation .  There are a lot of different opinions have on different issues…

Cruz: Do you consider his views well well within the mainstream?

Hagel: What views?

Cruz: His views on the Middle East and the Nation of Israel.

Hagel: I am not that familiar with all of his views.

Cruz: Let’s move on to your worldview.

I am sure some readers thought the comparison to Joe McCarthy in the first paragraph was the usual left-wing hyperbole, but those old enough to remember, or who are familiar with, the history, will recognize Cruz’s line of attack as classic McCarthy tactics. Cruz isn’t out to prove Hagel is a communist; only that he has “a greater antagonism toward Israel than any other member of this body.” Americans who worry about democracy need to keep on this guy. He is a not dumb drunk like McCarthy. He’s very smart and slick like some up and coming European rightists or Israel’s Naftali Bennett.

The hearings finally concluded about six o’clock. Hagel will probably be confirmed, but his performance today may make it more difficult to gain the support of Republicans like Saxby Chambliss or Roy Blunt, both of whom asked difficult questions without being insulting. Both King and Manchin, who are new to the body, were clearly taken aback by the sheer ferocity of the attack against Hagel. But that’s polarized Washington these days, and it is not pretty.