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.
The most pointed confrontation of the morning centered on John McCain’s demand that Hagel admit that he was wrong about his opposition to the Iraq surge. Hagel wouldn’t do so and, with the aid of the Democrats on the committee, managed to come out of the exchange not looking too bad since he could claim that he was right that the war (which he had voted to authorize) was a mistake.
He also danced around his participation with Global Zero, a group that issued a report about nuclear weapons that he co-authored, that called for drastic reductions in the U.S. arsenal and even offered unilateral disarmament as an option.
Yet far more damning was his incoherent response to questions about his refusal to support sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as well as his early opposition to those against the regime. His explanation of his vote in which he said Iran’s government was “elected and legitimate” was a shocking revelation of his mindset about the confrontation in which he has always failed to understand the nature of the threat.
Throughout the hearing, Hagel kept repeating that he supported President Obama on Iran and acted as if his record hadn’t been consistent in opposing sanctions on Iran and even considering a military option.
But the most damning moment came when Senator Roger Wicker finally asked about his comment about how he stood up to the “Jewish lobby” and discussed how it “intimidated” Congress and forced it to do “stupid” things. Wicker asked what groups he was referring to and whether he still agreed that Congress was intimidated into acting against U.S. interests.
In reply, Hagel only said that he should have said “pro-Israel lobby” rather than “Jewish lobby” and that he should have said “influenced” rather than “intimidated.” Curiously, he claimed that it was the only time he stated these thoughts “on the record,” leading to the obvious conclusion that he had probably said the same thing or worse in private.
But these words aside, he did nothing to answer whether he thought Israel’s friends have a disproportionate influence on the United States or whether its actions resulted in bad policy. Indeed, his silence on that point and his inability to cite a single member of Congress who had been intimidated or a single stupid policy enacted as a result of such pressure showed just how vicious and insulting that remark was. It also made it clear that despite his constant reiteration of his support for Israel and its qualitative military edge, he had not really changed his extreme views about the Middle East.
So long as Democrats stay loyal to the president and Republicans choose not to filibuster, Hagel will be confirmed. But Hagel has done nothing to convince anyone that his recantation of so much of what he has said and done during his career is sincere or deeply felt. But perhaps even more disturbing is the unimpressive command of the issues that he demonstrated while testifying. His nomination is clearly not one based on his merits but on his close relationship with President Obama. A second Obama administration with Hagel in charge at the Pentagon will be one in which it has a flawed leader at Defense whose out-of-the-mainstream record on key issues may reveal the president’s own inclinations.