Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 31. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)
Chuck Hagel may still be confirmed by the Senate as secretary of defense, because Democrats who hold the majority will probably vote with the president. But if the Israel Lobby manages to cull a few Democrats to join what appears to be a growing Republican tidal wave against Hagel, he’ll be shot down. Just as Chas Freeman—whose views are in roughly the same ballpark as Hagel’s—was shot down, even before his appointment got off the ground three years ago.
But Hagel didn’t help himself with a confused, stumbling appearance yesterday in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Admittedly, the SFRC was infested with what seemed to rabid jackals, extreme-right Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with John McCain of Arizona, still fighting the long-lost Iraq war.
But Hagel, rather than take any of them on, shucked and jived his way through the ordeal. It was the Apology Tour, during which Hagel alternately apologized for having semi-progressive views on issues such as Israel and Iran or, otherwise, denied he had them.
As the Times reported:
There was dismay from Democrats and derision from Republicans about Mr. Hagel’s sometimes stumbling performance during seven and a half hours of testimony.
Chris Cillizza, writing in The Washington Post, slammed Hagel’s performance:
Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel was, at turns, halting, befuddled and, often, just plain bad during his confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense.… He appeared to be taken completely aback by the aggressiveness of the questioning from many of his former Republican colleagues on long-hashed over topics like his posture toward Iran and Israel as well as his past statements regarding the surge in Iraq.
Cillizza thinks Hagel will be confirmed, despite all that, and I do, too. But Winslow Wheeler, an expert in defense spending who watched the proceedings with ever-greater gloom, believes that “the Hagel nomination to be secretary of defense is surely now in trouble.” He wrote in Time magazine:
Watching the Senate Armed Services Committee interact Thursday with former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel-President Obama’s candidate to be secretary of defense-was a profoundly depressing experience.
Hagel’s performance in his “confirmation” hearing was remarkable; he spent the day eating his own words under pressure mostly from Republicans-so much so that it is hard to understand what views he might actually hold.
Unlike most effective politicians who are always clever at saying nothing or changing positions, he was so inarticulate at doing so that it is also hard to understand how he ever could have been elected twice to the Senate from Nebraska.
As fumbling and apologetic as Hagel’s answers were to the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, even my low expectations for the performance of the senators on that committee went unmet.
Several Democrats seem mostly interested in protecting themselves from being seen as too cozy with Hagel because of his previous statements about Israel, its issues and its lobby (e.g. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.), and others seemed mostly concerned about pork (e.g. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.). Only moderate Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) seemed to be more worried about Hagel’s declining fate on the committee than feathering his own political nest.
However, even the worst of the Democrats strode as giants compared to the Republicans, who were all relentless in their cheap shots to justify their predetermined hostility to Hagel.
Particularly offensive was Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) insistence that the witness pay homage to McCain’s dogma on the sanctity of the “surge” as rescuing America from ignominy in Iraq (which it did not).
In his opening remarks, and in response to the heckling from Republicans, Hagel backtracked on everything he’s said for a decade or more and lined himself four-square with opponents of cutting the defense budget. He lavished praise on Israel and pledged to get the Pentagon ready for an attack on Iran since all options are “on the table.” From his opening statement:
I will ensure we stay vigilant and keep up the pressure on terrorist organizations as they try to expand their affiliates around the world, in places like Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa. At the Pentagon, that means continuing to invest in and build the tools to assist in that fight, such as special operations forces and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies
I am fully committed to the President’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and—as I’ve said in the past—all options must be on the table to achieve that goal. My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment—and the President has made clear that is the policy of our government. As Secretary of Defense, I will make sure the Department is prepared for any contingency. I will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its Qualitative Military Edge in the region and will continue to support systems like Iron Dome, which is today saving Israeli lives from terrorist rocket attacks.
Hagel may indeed give good advice to President Obama, about avoiding an attack on Iran and about pushing Israel back into talks with the Palestinians. He may tell Obama that the defense budget needs to drop sharply. But it seems he’ll do it privately.