Hours before John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, went before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing yesterday, his counterpart hoping to lead the Defense Department had another setback when the Senate Armed Services Committee postponed a vote on Chuck Hagel’s confirmation. The committee was showing its displeasure about Hagel’s failure to disclose information about the fees he received for speaking engagements and other entanglements. It’s been a bad week for Hagel, as he continues to be abused for his abysmal performance at his confirmation hearing. But the issue of his competence was put into relief yesterday by Brennan’s performance during his ordeal.
Brennan took a pasting from senators who vented years of frustration about the way they have been—as Senator Barbra Mikulski put it—“jerked around” by past CIA directors. He was grilled about his positions on torture of terror suspects, drone attacks, leaks and lingering questions about the disaster in Benghazi. But though he didn’t always give straight answers–or any answer at all–to some questions, he was prepared, focused and able to defend his position at all times. The contrast with Hagel was startling. Though, as I wrote yesterday, there are a number of good reasons to deny him confirmation, he is in command of the issues facing the CIA and clearly smart enough to do the job. Could anyone say the same about Hagel after last week’s fiasco?
Prior to his confirmation hearing, there wasn’t much talk about Hagel’s competence. His out-of-the-mainstream views about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah as well as his bad case of Vietnam syndrome about the use of Americana power were more than enough to make a convincing case against his nomination. But his ability to handle the job and to face the tough questions from Congress and the public was not called into question. Yet after that hearing, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the White House is feeling comfortable about Hagel being placed in charge of the entire defense establishment of the United States.
Brennan was more than equal to the task of dealing with the complicated and hostile queries put to him about the failures of American intelligence and whether it was abusing its power by pursuing, torturing and killing terrorists. But Hagel couldn’t even handle spoon-fed softballs lobbed to him by sympathetic Democrats and required notes from aides and corrections from senators before he managed to get his story straight on some subjects.
As the request for more information from the committee shows, there are still questions that remain unanswered about Hagel’s commitments, including any associations, as Breitbart.com reported yesterday, with unsavory elements.
There is one more point about Hagel. The most compelling argument put forward for his confirmation is one that actually tells us little about his ability to do the job: his combat experience in Vietnam. As even the New York Times’s Bill Keller has written, military experience is highly overrated when it comes to running the country or even the Defense Department. Yet many were impressed with the idea highlighted by the administration that Hagel would be the first former enlisted man to run the Pentagon. But, as the Times pointed out earlier this week in a feature, there is a very big asterisk attached to this topic.
It turns out that at least four other former secretaries of defense served as enlisted men in the armed forces. The only difference is that each of them–Melvin Laird, Elliot Richardson, Caspar Weinberger and William Perry–were eventually promoted to officer rank while Hagel was not.
Hagel’s service to our country deserves everyone’s respect. That is especially important to note since it came under fire in very difficult circumstances in Vietnam. But the talk about him bringing the unique perspective of an enlisted man to the Pentagon is just so much Obama administration hype. Others in the position he would like to fill have had that same perspective. The only difference is that they were smart and competent enough to be tapped for more responsibilities by their superiors in the military and Hagel was not.
It may be that the commitment of partisan Democrats to giving the president his choice will be enough to make them swallow Hagel’s unconvincing attempts to show that he had changed his mind about the “Jewish lobby,” Israel and Iran. But after Brennan showed the Senate what a competent nominee for high office sounds like, there are now even more good reasons for the Senate to tell the president that Hagel just isn’t worthy of high office.