Monday, 4 February 2013
The Hagel Hearings

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dorothy Rabinowitz: Chuck Hagel's Defenseless Performance

Nothing could have harmed the nominee for secretary of defense more than his own confirmation answers.

It shouldn't have been surprising that the Senate hearings to confirm Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense ended up shedding light on much more than this nominee and his qualifications. The trumpets had sounded long in advance on the main claim for Mr. Hagel—i.e., that his experience as an enlisted man, a combat veteran, had endowed him with special expertise not given to others, on matters of war, on our nuclear capacity, the size of our defense budget, a capacity to take the measure of Iran and North Korea.

Mr. Hagel had come by this wisdom, we were informed, because he had been at the front, seen men die, and knew, as we were frequently reminded, what the ordinary soldier thought and felt. All of this, the argument ran, gave him a unique capacity to head the Defense Department.

Could rational men and women seriously credit such a claim? The credential has been touted even by Mr. Hagel's devout partisans on the left, delirious over the prospect of so conspicuous a voice of antiwar sentiment as secretary of defense. And of course by the president who chose, by this nomination, to make the dreams of those cadres come true.

The same argument was made for Mr. Hagel in the confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, though it would come less and less often as events took a decidedly disastrous turn for the nominee. Here was an affair sizzling with exchanges that seemed to come straight from a skillful Hollywood script of the old school—the kind whose most improbable scenes feel like gut-wrenching reality.

And reality it was. Here was Mr. Hagel explaining, after hard thought, that he had really meant—when he referred to the current leadership of Iran as "a legitimate government"—that this government had been recognized by the United Nations. "Almost all of our allies have embassies in Iran," he added, in a comment eerily reminiscent of the logic that caused Sarah Palin to tell an interviewer, "You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska."

Matters didn't improve when Mr. Hagel announced, regarding Iran's nuclear capacity, that he supported the president's strong position on "containment." But the administration's policy is not, as Mr. Hagel apparently had yet to learn, containment—it is to prevent Iran's development of nuclear arms.

Nudged by a note handed him by an aide, the nominee corrected himself and declared that in fact the U.S. doesn't have a policy on containment. This was one misstatement too many for Carl Levin—the committee chairman, a Democrat and supporter of Mr. Hagel's nomination—who ended the discussion with his own terse correction: "We do have a position on containment, and that is we do not favor containment."

Now and again as the nominee, under questioning, repeatedly renounced his own former positions, wished aloud that he had edited himself, a Democratic senator or two expressed unhappiness with the harsh tone of the questions put to this veteran who had seen war. Connecticut's Sen. Richard Blumenthal murmured his dismay that a man who had served the country had to endure the kind of inquiries Mr. Hagel had.

Not all that many decades ago, it would not have been considered exceptional that a senator or congressman had served in the military. The halls of Congress were packed with Americans who had seen war. It says something about the political class today that the experience of having served in the military is such a rarity that it is seen, not infrequently, through a distorting lens. In no other period in the country's history would it have been considered unseemly, indeed ungrateful, that a combat veteran nominated for high office should be forced to face aggressive questioning.

Mr. Hagel's status as a martyr to a host of enemies—neoconservative conspirators, right-wing Republican war mongers, the list is long—has been building for a long while. He had, like a handful of Vietnam era veterans turned politicians, returned to a society drenched in the ideology of the 1960s and '70s, in whose view the United States was the chief enemy of humanity. He would become over the years a darling of the left, favorite dove of the Sunday talk shows, cherished above all for his identification as a Republican. Thanks to him, there could be countless reports that brought word that "even the Republican Chuck Hagel said"—whatever he said, it was warming to the hearts of the left.

Still no amount of right-wing conspiracies against Mr. Hagel could have done to the former Nebraska senator what his own astoundingly disastrous performance did. One that revealed far more about his lack of capacity for the job, his confusion, than anyone could have predicted—a display not without its saddening aspects. The vote count shows that Mr. Obama will still probably have his choice of defense secretary, but it will not come without cost to the reputation of this administration.

Of the parties to the hearings, none emerged with as much profit to show for themselves than the Republican interrogators who revealed the character and history of the man the president had proclaimed his ideal candidate to head the Pentagon. In this sustained effort they were remarkable—lethal, fully equipped, and driven by passion clearly beyondpartisan malice. It has been a long time since Republicans showed a fighting temper of this kind, unyielding in its contempt for what the choice of a Hagel represents about core values like the national defense, our stance regarding the most dangerous of our enemies in the world.

If the Hagel hearings had done nothing else—they had in fact done everything else in their revelations, if not the final outcome—they had, in this time of postelection dreariness, shown Republicans come roaring to life. They had been moved to do so by Mr. Obama's nomination of Mr. Hagel—a gift to the Republicans, though perhaps not to the national defense.

Posted on 02/04/2013 12:16 PM by Hugh Fitzgerald
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