Hassling Hagel

Republican Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, listens as he testifies before the Senate Armed Servi
Republican Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, listens as he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Last week's hearings in the Senate Armed Services Committee were supposed to be about the nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. They were not. Instead they were about most of the Republican minority posturing for sound bites and TV clips to raise funds or to deter right-wing primary challenges. And they were about putting forward a new proposition that a president's nominee should be rejected if he agrees with the president's policies.

Senator Hagel was too low-key in his responses to angry, accusatory and vicious questions. Perhaps he was lulled into a false sense of comity by his one on one meetings with the senators. Maybe he thought the Senate was as civil as it was when he left so short a time ago. Or perhaps he knew what trouble one can get into in Washington by committing truth. What would truth-telling have looked like?

In response to Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) badgering for an answer to whether Senator Hagel was wrong to vote against the surge in Iraq, Hagel should've responded that he was wrong to vote for the resolution to go to war in the first place. That he turned against the war when the rationales for war evaporated and the lack of planning for the occupation and for caring for the wounded was exposed. In that context, he could have said that the surge was throwing good money after bad, and sacrificing more young lives for a mistake and an outcome we still do not know. And then he could have asked Senator McCain whether he still believed that his vote for the Iraq war was right.

In response to Senator Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) hectoring him to name one senator unduly influenced by the "Jewish Lobby" and one mistake that resulted from such alleged pressure, Hagel could have pointed out that the time the senators were spending on this issue seemed an indication in itself of pro-Israel lobbying prowess. And then he could have asked the senators who had not received calls, letters, talking points or visits from pro[Israel lobbyists opposing his confirmation to raise their hands. And he could have pointed to the millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars that supported the indigenous development of the failed Lavi fighter plane project as one of many mistakes going as far back as covering up the 1967 Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty that took 34 American lives.

On criticisms of his supposed willingness to reduce defense spending, he could point out that the recent $457 billion reduction was passed by the Democratic controlled Senate and Republican controlled House and signed by the president and that it reduced the rate of growth, not the level of spending. And he could have pointed out that the sequester was a bipartisan agreement and the result of bipartisan deadlock. And he might have mentioned that Mitt Romney who advocated increasing the defense budget by $2 trillion over 10 years was soundly defeated.

Of course such truth-telling would have made no difference. Some honest GOP senators admitted that they had already committed to vote against Hagel. Others dishonestly claimed to be basing their decision on his testimony. Such are the ways of Washington.

And a new and cancerous way of Washington has also appeared. That is the infusion of large amounts of anonymous money from undisclosed donors into a cabinet confirmation fight. Hundreds of millions of such stealth funds were spent in the presidential campaign. Despite failing to defeat Obama or stop Democratic senate gains, the same shadowy figures seem to have money to burn on anti-Hagel advertising. Cowardice apparently is part of their nature. If this becomes the new normal, past gridlock may look like comity in the future.

There is a lot riding on Hagel's confirmation both for the process and the ability to govern. If massive spending from undisclosed sources, pressure from groups opposing him based on other than American national security interests and his support for the policies of the newly elected president can defeat someone of Chuck Hagel's character and experience, American politics will have reached the nadir.