Only days ago, it looked like Chuck Hagel was sailing to a quick confirmation as the nation’s new Secretary of Defense by the end of the week. Despite a shockingly poor performance at his Senate hearing, Senate Democrats closed ranks around him. With a couple of Republican supporters and most of the GOP caucus — especially the influential Senator John McCain — declaring they would not support a filibuster of his nomination, Hagel seemed certain of victory. But Hagel’s failure to produce information about income from speeches he had given and the White House’s continuing stonewall of Republican efforts to find about more about the Benghazi disaster have combined to stymie administration efforts to confirm him before Congress breaks for the President’s Day holiday.
Senior Democratic aides told Politico today that Senator Harry Reid doesn’t have the 60 votes he needs to stop a Republican filibuster when the Senate votes tomorrow on whether Hagel’s nomination can receive an up or down vote. That places him on hold at a crucial moment. Some Republicans are backing the roadblock to a vote only as leverage to get the administration to surrender material about the president’s involvement in the Benghazi decision-making process. But the delay may allow more damaging information to come to light about Hagel that could fundamentally alter the dynamic of the debate about his suitability for high office.
As our former colleague Alana Goodman reports at the Washington Free Beacon, a contemporaneous account of a 2007 speech given by Hagel at Rutgers University claimed the U.S. State Department had become an “adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s Office. These words were recorded in a blog written at that time by Hagel supporter George Ajjan who confirmed the veracity of the post to Goodman.
Just when it seemed as if Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense seemed almost certain, a crucial Senate Republican may be changing his mind about supporting a filibuster of the embattled nominee. As Politico reports, Senator John McCain is now leaving open the possibility of joining a filibuster of Hagel if the White House continues to refuse to release information about the president’s “actions and orders” on the night of the 9/11 terrorist attack in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
By joining his friend and colleague Lindsey Graham in demanding more data about Benghazi as the price for removing a hold on Hagel, McCain is moving away from his previous stand that a filibuster of a nominee for a senior Cabinet post is inappropriate. With two Republicans saying they would vote to confirm Hagel and several others agreeing with McCain that an up or down vote should not be denied their former colleague, it had looked as if the president’s choice was certain to be confirmed this week. But by adding his weight to the request for more about Benghazi, McCain may have, at least temporarily, changed the dynamic of the Hagel battle. Since the administration has resisted Senate demands to learn more about the president’s involvement in the Libya fiasco, this could mean that Hagel will have to wait until at least after the President’s Day holiday to get his vote.
After months of political debate the Senate Armed Services Committee may bring the Chuck Hagel saga closer to a resolution today. Yesterday, committee chair Carl Levin said he would schedule a vote for this afternoon but the ranking Republican member seems prepared to fight the former senator’s nomination as secretary of defense to the bitter end. With Democrats closing ranks behind the president’s choice to head the Pentagon, there doesn’t seem much chance that Hagel can be stopped in the committee. And with some Republicans, including John McCain, vowing not to support a filibuster of the nomination, it seems all but certain that Hagel will be confirmed perhaps as early as this week.
McCain made no secret of his antipathy for his former friend during a stormy confirmation hearing in which Hagel stumbled badly giving the impression that he was both unprepared and unqualified for the position. But McCain’s opposition to a GOP walkout from a committee vote as well as the filibuster may prevent opponents from using procedural tactics to stop the nomination going forward. The Arizonan feels that allowing the argument about Hagel to blow up relationships between the two parties in the committee or an attempt to stop the confirmation via filibuster —something that has rarely happened to any Cabinet nominee — would be unjustified. His concern for keeping things civil in the Senate deserves respect but given the stakes involved in this nomination, those Republicans who will seek to use every trick in the book to stop Hagel are justified.
In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Paul Hauptman writes that Chuck Hagel was correct when he described the Obama administration policy toward Iran as “containment.” “We are,” he writes, “approaching containment by deed, if not by label,” because the policy over the last four years has allowed Iran to reach the threshold of nuclear weapons capability.
Hagel’s now famous testimony–reading his opening statement that he supports the president’s prevention policy; then saying in unscripted remarks that he supports the president’s containment policy; then reading a note handed to him to re-instate his prior statement (and bungling that too)–unfortunately reminds me of an apocryphal anecdote and an old joke.
There has been a lot of controversy back-and-forth about whether the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) lobbies for the Islamic Republic of Iran. After an Iranian-American journalist referred to NIAC as a lobby group, NIAC sued him for defamation but ended up losing its case. While at the Washington Times, Eli Lake used documents revealed during that lawsuit’s discovery phase to suggest that NIAC was, indeed, illegally lobbying. Lake’s story apparently forced NIAC to amend its tax returns.
Jamal Abdi, NIAC’s policy director, now appears to push aside any pretense that NIAC is something other than Iran’s lobby. Speaking at the forthcoming “Expose AIPAC” conference, Abdi is featured on the “Training: Constituent Lobbying for Iran” panel. Oops.
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?
One of the interesting subtexts about the debate over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense has been the relative silence from the organized Jewish world. Though there was widespread shock from most pro-Israel activists, even those who were loyal liberal Democrats, about the president’s decision to choose one of the least Israel-friendly members of the U.S. Senate in the last generation to run the Pentagon, none of the major groups, aside from the Zionist Organization of America, spoke up publicly about his unsuitability for the post or his out-of-the mainstream views.
The reasons for this silence were obvious to anyone who understands their missions and how they operate. The refusal of the major Jewish organizations was rooted in their natural reluctance to embroil themselves in fights they think would hamper their ability to do their jobs. But at this juncture in the Hagel saga, after the nominee flopped at his Senate confirmation hearing and demonstrated how insincere his conversion from being tough on Israel and soft on Iran to a garden-variety backer of the Jewish state, it is time for them to reconsider. Though the odds still favor his confirmation, and with some senators, including Chuck Schumer and Claire McCaskill, citing their silence for their support for the nominee, the rationale of the organized Jewish world for staying out of this contretemps has evaporated.
I wanted to second Jonathan’s analysis of yesterday’s testimony by former Senator Chuck Hagel, who is hoping to become America’s 24th secretary of defense.
It may be that another nominee for a cabinet post has been more inept than Hagel was during his hearing–but if so, I can’t think of who it might be. Mr. Hagel showed himself to be in turn evasive, ignorant, unprincipled, baffled and dim-witted. And those were the high points.
There’s an unfortunate tendency in Washington to navel-gaze. At the heart of Chuck Hagel’s conceit is that the failure to resolve the Iranian nuclear and terror challenge is because of mistakes in Washington rather than strategy in Tehran. Almost every president—Democrat and Republican—enters the Oval Office blaming his predecessors—rather than America’s adversaries—for the failure of diplomacy. While many American diplomats and politicians may assume the world is reacting to American actions, the dirty little secret that has become so painfully obvious in recent years is that it is the United States—and not our enemies—that has no coherent strategy. Call it “leading from behind” or call it incompetence, but the United States is more often in reactive mode than proactive mode.
Against this backdrop, some analysts asked me to speculate about how Iran develops and executes its strategy, and what aspects of Iranian policy development American officials often miss. It might be a long slog to read, but here’s my crack at the answer.
Jonathan Tobin has ably covered Chuck Hagel’s underwhelming performance here and here. Many of his supporters apparently were shocked at how poorly Hagel did under questioning; they should not have been. Senate Democrats may still band together to confirm Hagel, but the whole episode should be a wake-up call for the press not only regarding the former senator’s competence, but also about the motivations of many of his most vocal supporters.
During the Cold War, there were communists, anti-communists, and anti-anti-communists who were much less concerned about the reality of the Soviet Union than about stymying those who were opposed to Moscow. Likewise, in the aftermath of 9/11, there were terrorists, anti-terrorists and, within progressive circles, anti-anti-terrorists who were more consumed with Bush Derangement Syndrome than with Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. Their rhetoric was marked by sky-is-falling hyperbole regarding Gitmo, the Patriot Act, and Dick Cheney.
It’s not clear if administration sources that leaked the story that Chuck Hagel had three practice sessions before a mock committee before his actual Senate confirmation hearing were trying to help or hurt the former senator. Hagel’s performance was so shaky that even some of his liberal supporters like Peter Beinart were lamenting on Twitter about his stumbling and bumbling answers to tough questions. That he flopped so badly after being rehearsed speaks volumes about how bad he was. Indeed, he had so many misstatements that it will be hard for news organizations to choose which of them to broadcast in their highlights of the hearings. But as much as his inability to speak coherently and present a plausible defense of his record while under pressure was exposed today, in what was probably the worst showing by a presidential nominee in a confirmation hearing in memory, it was his credibility that took the biggest hit.
Time and again throughout the day, Hagel bobbed and weaved when presented with examples of the contradictions between the voluminous record of votes and statements about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and what he has been saying in public since President Obama nominated him to be the next secretary of defense. Under tough questioning from Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Roger Wicker and Ted Cruz, Hagel’s pose as a consistent and ardent friend of Israel and foe of Iran was shown to be nothing but a hastily constructed façade that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The first hours of Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing did little to gladden the hearts of his supporters. While the strict partisan divide over the nomination should ensure that he would get the support of a majority of senators, his bumbling performance undermined any notion that the president’s choice to lead the Pentagon was winning over any of his critics. More to the point, his effort to portray his recent recantations of his long-held skepticism about attempts to stop Iran from going nuclear, his criticisms of Israel, and his belief in engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah as consistent with his record was a flop. Though he had obviously been prepped to state his support for Israel and President Obama’s policies on Iran over and over again—a task made easier by Democratic senators asking him to merely reaffirm and regurgitate those talking points—he still managed to stumble over some issues he hoped to put to rest.
On the question of his refusal to back sanctions against Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, Hagel was both contradictory and disingenuous. But on the one past statement that was the smoking gun about his attitudes toward Israel—his rant about the “Jewish lobby” and its intimidation of Congress—his answers did little to dispel the notion that his views have not changed.
One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”
Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.
As Chuck Hagel gets grilled in the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on Iran and Israel, it is sobering to reflect on new evidence of how little effect sanctions are having on the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran has just notified the IAEA that it is stepping up uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, which would allow it to accelerate the timeline for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iran’s oil exports have been rebounding since the imposition of European Union sanctions last July. Iran’s crude oil exports in December hit 1.4 million barrels a day–still down from 2011 levels of 2.2 million barrels a day but higher than last summer. This is evidence that, thanks to strong demand in China, India and other nations, Iran is managing to weather oil sanctions.
After more than a month of argument over his nomination as secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel faces the first day of his Senate confirmation hearings on Thursday. The administration’s preparation for this event has been thorough, as the former senator has flipped on most of his controversial positions on Israel, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and gained the support of some key pro-Israel Democrats like Chuck Schumer. That ought to have been enough to secure his confirmation and the expectation right now is that while the Nebraskan will be roughed up a bit in the hearings, he will still win easily when the votes are counted.
But even the most careful preparations and political groundwork with individual members of the Senate can be blown up by a hearing in which a nominee gives critics new and perhaps damaging ammunition. The advise and consent process can be gamed by a nominee who is willing to disavow many of his previously cherished viewpoints as Hagel has done. Yet if Hagel’s responses to questions lack credibility or come across as obviously insincere, the rumblings about Hagel’s unsuitability to run the Pentagon will get louder. Should the notoriously prickly politician, who is far more used to bullying witnesses at Senate hearings than he is to meekly submitting to such abuse, fire back at his tormentors the result could change the conversation about his nomination.
On January 10, 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama explained his opposition to the Iraq surge of additional troops by making a prediction: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” It was an early indication of Obama’s poor judgment and instinct to substitute ideological stubbornness for serious analysis. As we soon found out, Obama was just about as wrong as could be. I say “just about,” because Obama’s error was, surprisingly, eclipsed the very next day by the one man who turned out to be more mistaken than Obama, by saying the surge was “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”
That man, of course, was Chuck Hagel. Obama and Hagel would develop a friendship, and repeat this pattern. They would travel to Iraq together, where Hagel was dismissive and suspicious of the military’s top brass. Obama would take office and do the same. Hagel would speak out against tough Iran sanctions, and Obama would work against them from the White House, opposing several iterations of them and finally watering them down when he couldn’t prevent sanctions from passing Congress. Hagel would loudly criticize even the contemplation of military action against Iran, and Obama would have his secretary of defense deliver a similar message to Israel. It is this pattern that has led Hagel’s critics to express concern about his nomination to be secretary of defense. Many worry Obama shares Hagel’s views; Obama’s defenders assure us he does not. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward says the critics are right, and relays a conversation Obama and Hagel had at the beginning of Obama’s first term:
Chuck Schumer’s decision to give Chuck Hagel a kosher seal of approval last week seemed to take a lot of the steam out of the growing movement to stop his confirmation as secretary of defense. But, as Alana noted last week, there is still plenty of opposition to President Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon, and yesterday one of the more prominent liberal voices in the media voiced his doubts about the former senator. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller is as reliable a font of liberal conventional wisdom as can be found, but to his credit, he rejects as absurd the argument that Hagel’s military service during Vietnam qualifies him to lead the defense apparatus.
Keller takes aim, as I did recently, at the idea that military valor is a qualification for high office. Even more interesting, while Keller approves of Hagel’s non-mainstream views about engaging Iran and other Islamist threats, he also directly acknowledges that the Nebraskan seems to have a classic case of Vietnam syndrome as well as being unlikely to be able to manage generals. If liberals like Keller are willing to air this kind of a critique of Hagel, then Republicans who are thinking about going to the mat in an attempt to stop his confirmation ought to be encouraged.
On the heels of reports that the American Future Fund is launching an anti-Hagel ad campaign, another conservative group has announced it will also run ads opposing the Secretary of Defense nominee. Americans for a Strong Defense, a newly formed group led by former Romney aides, says it will specifically target vulnerable Senate Democrats. Politico reports:
A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel. …
The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.
Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.
Politico reports that the American Future Fund is launching an anti-Hagel ad campaign that will target senators in their own states. This is interesting, because AFF’s usual wheelhouse is free market economic issues, though it has strayed into the foreign policy realm on critical occasions. It certainly contradicts the narrative that the opposition to Chuck Hagel is coming primarily from neoconservatives:
The American Future Fund will go after the former Nebraska senator in state and national media outlets in the two weeks leading up to his confirmation hearings, AFF strategists told POLITICO. The Senate Armed Services Committee announced Wednesday that it will begin hearings on Hagel starting Jan. 31.
AFF plans a multi-stage messaging effort against Hagel, starting Thursday with ads online and in the Washington D.C. market, then extending to the states of senators voting on Hagel’s appointment to lead the Pentagon.
AFF spokesman Stuart Roy declined to put a price tag on the effort but said the organization will leave “no stone unturned in terms of mediums.” That will begin this week with a website, HagelNo.com, and ads in Washington-based media, including POLITICO.
Republicans don’t seem to be retreating from the battle over Chuck Hagel. Senator James Inhofe, the new ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has added his name to the list of Republicans opposing the defense secretary nominee. The question is, how far will the party be willing to go on this fight? There are other nominations it has an interest in fighting, including Jack Lew for treasury secretary, John Kerry for secretary of state, and John Brennan for CIA chief. In the end, it will only be able to choose a couple to focus on.
The point of battling Lew wouldn’t necessarily be to prevent his confirmation outright, because there is no indication that Obama would choose someone preferable. But threatening a fight could help bring attention to policy differences between the GOP and the White House, and hold Lew accountable for his slippery relationship with the truth.