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.
Those who want to get to the truth about Hagel’s views need to press him closely about what he meant when he bragged about standing up to pressure about the “Jewish lobby.” Does he think, as he previously argued, that the pro-Israel community has disproportionate or wrongful influence over Congress, as he implied? And why did he single out “Jewish” lobbyists as a threat to congressional independence and not other more powerful forces such as the oil lobby (not to mention the pressure put on Congress from the agricultural and corn lobby that drains the federal treasury with unnecessary subsidies)?
The public needs to know why he previously opposed sanctions on Iran. He needs to explain what, other than being nominated to run the Defense Department, made him change his mind about engaging the Islamist regime and protecting it from international pressure to drop its nuclear program. Why did he endorse a study published only a few months ago that sought to rally opposition to using force as even a last resort to stop Iran?
Hagel also must elaborate on why he favored engagement with the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah.
These are not minor points or details. While any candidate for high office can be expected to modify their positions on some issues in order to conform to those of the president, it is rare for any nominee to do a 180 on as many issues as Hagel has done in only a few weeks.
As Seth wrote earlier this week, the belief that Hagel is the president’s soul mate on war and peace issues ought to scare the country silly as details of the nominee’s out-of-the-mainstream views on key issues are explored. It may well be that Hagel will control himself and stick to his not-terribly-credible story about a change of heart and skate to confirmation. But should he succumb to the temptation to candidly explain himself, the ensuing fireworks may bring President Obama the first real setback of his second term.