NEW YORK – President Barack Obama’s defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is said to have done poorly in his first hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday.
“The Hagel nomination has been a fiasco,” concluded former New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait.
Hagel spent a large part of his eight hours of testimony backtracking on comments he had made in the past about Iran, the Israel lobby, and the US nuclear arsenal.
But, Chait and others noted, he “not only had to correct and revise statements he had made in the past. He also kept making new statements during the hearings that required real-time renunciation. He called the Iranian government ‘elected, legitimate,’ and when asked to clarify how this could describe a government whose election process and popular legitimacy are, to say the least, shaky, he offered: ‘What I meant to say, should have said, it’s recognizable. It’s been recognized, is recognized at the United Nations. Most of our allies have embassies there. That is what I should have said.’”
Both Democratic and Republican senators were “very surprised… that he’s simply not doing as well as many people thought he would,” reported CNN’s Dana Bash from Capitol Hill. “Senators are shocked about how ill-prepared he is on some of the most basic controversial comments that he made, that he and everybody knew would be coming at him.”
But this consensus does not, in fact, endanger Hagel’s chances to be the next defense secretary; it only highlights how certain Hagel is to succeed Leon Panetta in the post.
One indication: Rarely did any senator on the Armed Services Committee grilling Hagel bother to question the defense nominee on substantive issues of policy.
As Evan Wood, a Pulitzer-winning reporter covering the US military, noted after the hearing, “No one on the committee bothered to ask, with more than $1 trillion scheduled to be whacked out of the Pentagon’s 10-year spending plan, what missions will it give up? Which parts of the world should go unpatrolled, which allies unsupported, which brush-fire conflicts allowed to burn on untended?”
Instead of tackling the nominee on the most significant issues faced by a post-Afghanistan Pentagon – the pivot to East Asia, the drawdown of forces and reconsideration of alliances in the Muslim world, the future of counter-terrorism and drone warfare – Republican senators largely preferred to stage a performance designed for the television cameras.
Senators demanded that he explain whether Iran’s regime is “legitimate” or simply “recognized,” whether an Israel lobby “intimidates” or merely convinces, whether the Iraq surge was clearly successful or demanded a more nuanced examination. In other words, Hagel was challenged on issues that primarily interest pundits and reporters, not defense planners and policy analysts.
That’s not the behavior of a Senate committee that believes Hagel’s nomination is up for grabs and should be evaluated on substance.
To be sure, Hagel did not enjoy the eight hours of grilling that senators subjected him to. But he must have walked away gratified that the only meaningful challenge he faced on Capitol Hill came from the minority Republicans, and it concerned past statements rather than future policy.
The challenge came on issues that, for the Washington defense establishment and the Democratic majority, are largely beside the point and will not sway their votes away from the nominee of a Democratic White House.
And, it must be said, while he stuttered his way through the grilling, Hagel did not seem in any rush to forcibly steer the conversation toward a deeper discussion about defense policy or budget cuts. Why generate opposition on substantive policy when you can coast to confirmation in a cloud of ineffectual political bluster?