Will the Senate have the guts to reject a man totally unqualified to be Secretary of Defense?
Chuck Hagel's battle to become the next Secretary of Defense, succeeding Leon Panetta, took center stage on Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing. At times appearing like a deer caught in the headlights, he was unable to handle the tough questions addressed at his record. He appeared at times dazed, bewildered and unable to defend his record of disturbing policy positions, many of which he disavowed during the hearing and could not explain why. In light of his performance, those senators who had been undecided about confirming Hagel certainly have ample reason now to join with their conservative colleagues in refusing to send a candidate so unworthy to the Pentagon.
Things got off to a rocky start when a protester demanding benefits for gay and lesbian families who serve in the military stood up holding a sign that said, "We serve equally. We deserve equality." But this friendly fire from the Left was only the beginning.
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tried to provide some air cover for Hagel by kicking off the hearing with warm praise for Hagel's military record and service in the Senate. After trying to frame the questions that Hagel would need to answer to satisfy his critics and admitting that he had his own concerns with Hagel's positions on unconditional talks with Iran, opposition to unilateral sanctions and willingness to engage with Hamas, Senator Levin did not wait for Hagel's answers. “Sen. Hagel certainly has those critically important qualifications to lead the Department of Defense,” he said in providing his endorsement.
Then came the turn of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the new ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. Inhofe has serious problems with the Hagel nomination. First, he complained that he had not received the information on Hagel's finances that he had requested. Then he took a shot at Hagel's lack of judgment on the critical national security issues facing the nation.
“We are just too philosophically opposed on the pressing issues facing our country for me to support his nomination,” Senator Inhofe said. “His record demonstrates what I view as a lack of sound judgment and steadfast support for policies that diminish U.S. power and influence.”
Senator Inhofe's prepared statement laid out a bill of particulars against Hagel's nomination, including:
• "On the defense budget and sequestration, Senator Hagel’s views are contrary to the judgment of our top civilian and military leaders."
• "Too often, it seems, he is willing to subscribe to a worldview that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends."
• "In 2001, he was one of just two Senators who voted against a bill extending harsh sanctions against Iran. A year later, he urged the Bush administration to support Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization. He voted against a resolution designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps – a group responsible for the killing of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—a terrorist organization. And, on multiple occasions, he has advocated for direct negotiations with Iran—a regime that continues to repress its people, doggedly pursue a nuclear weapons capability, and employ terrorist proxies, including Hamas and Hezbollah, to threaten the security of Israel and the region."
Senator Inhofe was especially troubled by Chuck Hagel's attempts to "walk back or alter his positions for the sake of political expediency."
During a testy exchange with Hagel, Senator Inhofe asked him why the Iranian foreign ministry supports his nomination:
"[T]he people — I’m quoting right now from Iran — people of the Middle East, the Muslim region and North Africa, people of these regions hate America from the bottom of their heart. [Iran] further said Israel is a cancerous tumor in the heart of the Islamic world. They further said Iran’s warriors are ready and willing to wipe Israel off the map. The question I’d like to ask you, and you can answer for the record if you’d like, why do you think the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the Secretary of Defense?"
"I have a difficult enough time with American politics, Senator," Hagel responded with a smirk. "I have no idea, but thank you. And I’ll be glad to respond further for the record."
In his opening statement to the committee, Chuck Hagel asked to be judged on the entirety of his record, not individual votes or isolated speeches. "My overall worldview," Hagel declared, "has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together; and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests. I believe, and always have, that America must engage – not retreat – in the world."
The problem Hagel has with his attempt to define himself as a strong advocate of the use of American power to protect the country's interests and values is that he has repeatedly demonstrated through a series of votes and speeches over an extended period of time the very opposite. He has shown repeatedly a willingness to coddle Iran, which represents in all likelihood the most destabilizing and dangerous obstacle to peace and security today.
Hagel's claim in his opening statement that his policy towards the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran "is one of prevention, and not one of containment" directly contradicts his past endorsement of a containment policy similar to that followed during the Cold War vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Other than saying that he will follow President Obama's policies, Hagel offered no explanation for the abrupt change in his own thinking - or, as some might characterize it, his tactical retreat from his prior controversial positions. It is crucial to understand where Hagel himself is really coming from because his assumptions and biases will inevitably affect the advice that he gives to Obama and the degree to which he supports military preparedness for prevention purposes rather than containment.
Under questioning from Senator Levin, Hagel said that his opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran were based on circumstances at "a different time."
“We were at a different place with Iran during that time,” Hagel said.
When exactly have we been in a good place with Iran in the last thirty-plus years, since the Islamists seized power, took Americans hostage and embarked on a hostile path in the direction of state sponsorship of terrorism, threats of annihilation of our closest ally in the region, Israel, and the acquisition of nuclear arms? And how was 2008 so different than today in regards to Iran when Hagel was reported to have been “solely responsible” for blocking a bill that would have tightened economic sanctions in Iran, according to the Huffington Post?
Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) cut through the smokescreen that Hagel was attempting to create around his shifting explanations of how he felt about unilateral sanctions against Iran. Wicker challenged his "contradicting" positions.
Democrats, not surprisingly, rose to Hagel's defense. Even Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a relatively conservative Democratic Senator, was effusive in his praise of Hagel. "I look forward to voting for you," Manchin told Hagel.
Senator Manchin said he joined other Democrats in believing that Hagel was not lacking in support of Israel - an issue that Hagel had tried to defuse by more or less apologizing for his remark a number of years ago about the "Jewish lobby" (he meant to say "pro-Israel lobby") that he had once said "intimidated" (he meant to say "influence") some members of Congress.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) zeroed in on his biggest bone of contention with Chuck Hagel - the military surge in Iraq which many experts credit with turning the war there decisively around in our favor. "I think history has already made a judgment on the surge," Senator McCain said. "You’re on the wrong side of it."
Hagel was not willing to give much ground on this particular issue. He said that the surge may not have been necessary to affect the war's outcome and that he would await history's verdict. When McCain pressed Hagel to answer directly whether his opposition to the surge, which Hagel in 2007 had said "represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam," turned out to be right or wrong, Hagel's rejoinder was that “I am not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today.”
"I'm very disappointed in his failure to answer my questions," Senator McCain told Wall Street Journal reporter Kristina Peterson. However, McCain said that he still had not decided whether he will in the end vote for or against Hagel's confirmation.
Hagel's continued refusal to acknowledge that his comparison of the Iraq surge to Vietnam was wrong reveals one of the fundamental problems with the Hagel nomination. While Hagel has tried to neutralize criticism of his views on Iran and Israel by saying that he has evolved or had previously misspoken, he cannot shake the so-called Vietnam Syndrome - the national defense paralysis that stemmed from what Ronald Reagan once described as “feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful.”
Hagel's service in Vietnam, as courageous and patriotic as it was, has kept him in the grip of the Vietnam Syndrome and completely colored his worldview. As a result, he is incapable of delivering to President Obama the kind of clear-eyed, hard-headed and objective advice that Obama needs to balance his own tendencies towards appeasement.
In one of the most dramatic exchanges of the hearing, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) played a video clip from an appearance by Hagel on an Al Jazeera show in 2009. Hagel appeared to agree with an e-mail read by the host of the show, which said that the perception and reality in the world is that America is “the world’s bully.”
“Do you think it’s appropriate for the chief civilian leader of the U.S. military forces to agree with the statement that both the perception and the reality is that the United States is the world's bully?” Senator Cruz asked Hagel.
Hagel was at first tongue-tied and then tried to wiggle out of the situation by claiming that “[m]y comment was it’s a relevant and good observation. I don’t think that I said I agree with it.” But Hagel was also heard saying on the clip "yes" to the observation in the e-mail.
Towards the end of a long day of hearings in which Chuck Hagel appeared at times unprepared and hesitant in his answers and at other times evasive or misleading in trying to explain away his past votes, statements and positions, Hagel told Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) that "I wasn't looking for another job." It is unclear at this point whether he will have enough support in the Senate to get confirmed, but his testimony proved beyond any reasonable doubt that he is totally unqualified for the job of Secretary of Defense.
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