Secretary Hagel and the Senate's Massive Waste of Time

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2013, file photo, Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services
FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2013, file photo, Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Hagel is expected to be sworn in as Secretary of Defense Wednesday Feb. 27, 2013 and is likely to address the staff in his first day as defense secretary. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)

So Chuck Hagel is now the secretary of defense after a grueling confirmation process that managed to ignore most of the big challenges he'll face. That's our political media culture in inaction.

Chuck Hagel and his allies spent months dealing with a string of mostly hysterical distractions -- Did Hagel receive money from the non-existent "Friends of Hamas?" Is Hagel an anti-semite because he does not follow the agenda of the most conservative government in Israeli history (a government still having notable difficulty re-forming itself after elections more than five weeks ago)? Isn't Hagel really an ally/agent of the mullahs of Iran and the hermit dictators of North Korea? -- while massive real world issues went ignored.

Unfortunately, charges like these, the intellectual equivalent of tossing marbles down the hallway of an elementary school, prove all too distracting for the Zoe Barnes element of the media. Just as the cynics behind them knew they would be.

Deeper analysis told us that none of that stuff would matter in the end as far as the outcome was concerned.

Brand-new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, just sworn into office, addressed his new Pentagon subordinates, saying: "We must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests; and America must engage - not retreat - in the world, but engage wisely." Hagel cited his co-authorship, with former Virginia Senator and Navy Secretary Jim Webb, the most highly decorated Marine officer of the Vietnam War, of the post-9/11 GI Bill as one of his proudest accomplishments.

Still, much was lost. Not Hagel's nomination, of course. But something perhaps more important than that, important as the identity of the secretary of defense undoubtedly is. And that is time and space with which to consider what's going on.

Consider what the Senate, which once dubbed itself "the world's greatest deliberative body," and a news media, which has greater access to information than at any time in history, didn't deal with just in the last few days of the anti-Hagel filibuster.

The most expensive weapons system in the history of the United States was grounded again while the Hagel filibuster went into extra innings. The Pentagon has planned to spend nearly $400 billion for 2500 F-35s.

The Pentagon has found another engine blade crack in its state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter jet. I didn't recall hearing questions about the F-35 during the Senate confirmation hearings on Chuck Hagel.

So I went back to the transcript of the hearing and found only one reference to the F-35.

It came from Texas Senator John Cornyn, a principal leader of the get-Hagel crowd. But he didn't talk about the chronic problems with the project. Nor did he have any inkling that the plane was about to be grounded. His problem was that the project wasn't accelerating.

"Right now," he complained to Hagel, "we're stalling 179 F-35s that we just recently are putting off, and I always say that if they put them off indefinitely, that's just a cut, it's not a put off. Those are things that we should be doing right now. We're looking at the Ohio Class sub. We should be doing that right now, but we've postponed it." (Here Cornyn seems to be complaining about delays in a next generation ballistic missile submarine platform which the Soviet Union is undoubtedly happy about.)

Cornyn goes on to complain about the greening of the DoD, which is being undertaken to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and, even more important, their very vulnerable supply lines. "And if we were to spend the money that we're spending on the environmental causes on war fighting, I think it would do us better good."

And that was it for any discussion of the F-35, which quickly devolved in the oil state senator's hands into complaints about moving away from fossil fuels.

Not that Hagel had anything to say on this stuff, mind you. Hagel's plan, or at least that of his White House handlers -- who need to get some stick-um on those slippery mitts -- seems to have been to rope-a-dope through and hope the hysteria against him was revealed as just that. As a tactic, it worked, but as substance, it stinks. At some point, a presidency simply runs out of opportunities to elevate the debate.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, long planned to be the pre-eminent strike and interceptor aircraft in the world, is a remarkably troubled program which just suffered its latest big setback during the anti-Hagel filibuster.

What else happened during the last days of the Hagel filibuster that no one brought up during the debate over the next secretary of defense?

Well, just Afghan President Hamid Karzai moving over the weekend to kick US Special Forces out of a key province outside Kabul.

His reason? He says that they, through the forces they've trained, are fostering torture and unlawful imprisonment of innocent Afghans.

The province in question, Wardak Province, is being used as a staging grounds for attacks on Kabul.

Earlier in the month, Karzai forbade Afghan forces from calling in US air strikes under any circumstances, and urged US forces to accelerate their withdrawal.

Also not a topic of discussion in the, ah, debate around the next defense secretary.

And this week we learned that the Pentagon's report of major progress against the Taliban was, well, simply false. That ballyhooed drop in Taliban attacks? Never happened.

What accounts for this dramatic, false claim? Supposedly a clerical error at ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan.

Which makes the big surge in Afghanistan a failure, even by the official accounting.

Also lost in the hysteria around Hagel? The big geopolitical pivot to the rising Asia Pacific. And problems with nascent superpower China, which is engaged in high-stakes showdowns with Japan in the East China Sea, and with others among its neighbors in the South China Sea, not to mention widespread credible reports of a leading role in cyber-attacks. (Here's an archive of my pieces related to the Pivot.)

Instead of all these things, we had non-stop hysteria, driven by neoconservative folks like Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin, who used her perch at the Washington Post to reveal far more about her mindset than she realized when she wrote these bitter words following Hagel's victory: "Let's be clear: We have two parties: the Hagel Democrats and the pro-Israel Republicans. Only one party considers national security serious enough to place it above loyalty to the White House."

Meanwhile, in Israel itself, where the debate naturally does not turn on what is best for America but on what is best for Israel, the question of what is best for Israel is far less clear than it seems to the zealots of Rubin's type who place it, somehow, at the center of American national security. There the debate is more spirited than it is here, and questions of anti-semitism around those who don't agree with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu -- who lost a quarter of his party's seats in the January 22nd election and still hasn't formed a new coalition -- aren't relevant, for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile, we have a new secretary of defense, who has grave new challenges which went essentially undiscussed during his confirmation. A triumph for our democracy.

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