Confirmation hearings may be dull fare for the average American, but to the dedicated current events enthusiast they often provide some of the best theater that politics has to offer. Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s appearance on Thursday before a Senate committee, for instance, was classic farce.
The former Senator from Nebraska gave such an inept performance that even the most sympathetic media panned it. Politico reluctantly conceded that he “stumbled,” The Hill described him as “shaky,” and The Washington Post went so far as to concede that he “faced withering criticism.” All of the sound bites that found their way into the radio reports gave the same impression, with Hagel stammering lame responses to the most predictable questions.
Because Hagel is a Republican, and with a fairly conservative record on domestic issues, the administration might have hoped that he would be spared a thorough interrogation by the members of his party. If so, the administration has overestimated the opposition’s party loyalty. Hagel is a throwback to the long-ago isolationist era of the Republican party, with a strange affinity for Iran’s brutal theocracy, a suspicious antipathy for Israel’s embattled democracy, a record of wobbliness on the Iraq war, and the “R” behind his name was not enough to shield him from questions about all of it.
Sen. Jim Inhofe asked about the fact that Iran’s government has explicitly endorsed Hagel nomination, and Hagel replied that “I have a difficult enough time with American politics, Senator. I have no idea, but thank you. I’ll be glad to respond further to the record.” In response to a question by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Hagel described Iran’s government as “elected and legitimate” before walking it back during friendlier questioning from a Democratic Senator. Sen. Ted Cruz quoted comments Hagel had made to the terror-friendly Al Jazeera network about America as “the world’s bully,” forcing Hagel to insist that his words did not mean what they clearly did mean, and Sen. Lindsey Graham asked about Hagel’s stated view that the “Israel lobby” “intimidates” the Senate, forcing Hagel to admit that he could not name one Senator who was intimidated by Israel nor one “dumb thing” the American government has done as a result of Israeli influence. Hagel’s distinguished record of service in the Vietnam War might have been expected to earn him some gentle treatment, but no one out-Vietnam vets Sen. John McCain, who grilled Hagel on his opposition to the surge strategy that allowed an American withdrawal from a relatively peaceful Iraq, and after saying that he would “defer to the judgment of history” Hagel seemed to sputter his insistence that he was still right about the surge being “the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.”
It was so embarrassing that the press had no choice but to admit it, but the reluctant criticism was all about how Hagel was simply unprepared, or out of practice after a few years of retirement from politics, and that he’s a Republican after all. This focus on Hagel spared the press from pondering the possibility that the real problem is his world view, clearly shared by the administration that seeks his appointment, which simply can bear such scrutiny no matter the apologist.
— Bud Norman