The Senate-Hearing Circus Is in Session

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senator Ted Cruz uses a poster while questioning Chuck Hagel, a former two-term GOP senator and President Obama's choice for defense secretary, during his confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, January 31, 2013. Hagel faced strong GOP resistance and was forced to explain past remarks and votes even as he appeared on a path to confirmation as Obama second-term defense secretary and the nation's 24th Pentagon chief.

That really could’ve gone better. Appearing before yesterday’s marathon session of the Senate Armed Services Committee, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, seemed apologetic, hesitant, and adrift. To the extent Hagel seemed to have prepared at all, it was for a set of serious questions on serious issues from a completely different set of Senators who weren’t out to score petty partisan points.
Looking to make sense of the spectacle, I spoke to a former senior defense official who has testified over 200 times before congressional committees, and who suggested that Hagel may have been right not to push back harder. “The thing to remember with these hearings is that the senators have home-field advantage,” he said. “You really can’t win. If they’re there to score points, they’ll do it.”

As to the element of performance involved, “Once, before a hearing, I was passed a note by a Senator,” the former official continued. “It read ‘Don’t pay attention to what I’m about to say, it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at my constituents.’ So there’s a lot of theater involved in these things.”

Somehow I doubt any such notes were passed to Chuck Hagel yesterday. Any hopes that Republicans might be embracing a new reasonableness in the wake of their Election Day drubbing will have to be put off. They evinced a level of disdain for the nominee that I don’t recall ever seeing in a similar hearing. Space prohibits a full accounting of the proceedings, so I’ll focus on a few key exchanges.

For John McCain, it all came back to one issue: The Iraq war, which both he and Hagel had initially supported. Hagel, like nearly two-thirds of Americans, came to believe that the war was a mistake. McCain still believes it wasn’t and desperately wanted Hagel to tell him so.

Or maybe, deep down, McCain does know that the war was a mistake, which might explain his obsessive insistence on arguing about the 2007 troop surge, rather than the decision to go to war itself. In any case, it’s notable that no other Senator bothered to pick McCain’s line of Iraq questioning, indicating that they, like most Americans, see the debate as settled and have moved on.  

But even if McCain was the only senator to bring up the Iraq War, it’s clear that many remain committed to the same unreflective hawkishness that led to it, to judge by the number of questions asking whether Hagel is willing enough to go to war with Iran. Many senators also seemed deeply concerned over Hagel’s support for nuclear weapons reductions, demonstrating once again that Ronald Reagan could not make it in today’s GOP.

Lindsey Graham seized on Hagel’s past comments about the Israel lobby in order to pretend to be scandalized by the (should be) uncontroversial idea that special interest groups “intimidate” politicians. He then scored a cheap point by demanding that Hagel name those members who had been so intimidated, which Hagel of course declined to do. (For a clue to how preposterous the complaints over the use of the word “intimidate” are in this context, note that neocon don Bill Kristol, who has led the charge against Hagel, wrote recently that “members of Congress—including many who privately know better— will be intimidated by the forces of gender correctness” into supporting the Pentagon’s decision to allow women in combat. Don’t expect Graham to challenge Kristol on just who those members of Congress might be.)

Still, even if many of Hagel’s questioners shamed themselves with their uncivil and unserious questions, blame still belongs to Hagel for failing to duck punches that right-wing media have been telegraphing for weeks. The hearings were a missed opportunity; the “unorthodox” views Hagel refused to defend are views that enjoy considerable support among both voters and foreign policy elites, as Heather Hurlburt ably demonstrated.

Hagel should’ve been able to explain how, whatever positive impact the surge may have made in Iraq, it did not vindicate the decision to invade. He should’ve been able to explain that, while he has been and remains committed to U.S. support for Israel, that doesn’t require acquiescing to its self-destructive policies of occupation and settlement. (He might also have recommended the new Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, in which five former heads of the Shin Bet security service concur on that point.)

Indeed, Hagel’s strongest moment of the day came when he decided to defend his views rather than sidle away from them. In an exchange with New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who challenged Hagel on his past suggestion that the United States should engage in bilateral talks with Iran (Ayotte is apparently unaware that the Obama administration has been trying to do this), Hagel responded, “I’ve never thought engagement is weakness. I’ve never thought it was surrender. I never thought it was appeasement. I think it’s clearly in our interests. If that doesn’t work then I think the president’s position and his strategy has been exactly right.” Continued engagement with Iran, however frustrating, helps create legitimacy for stronger multilateral pressure. “Get the United Nations behind you. Get the international sanctions behind you,” he continued. “Keep military options on the table. If the military option is the only option, it’s the only option.”

Despite yesterday’s performance, the odds are still good that Hagel will be confirmed as our next Secretary of Defense. He’ll move on. But it appears that congressional Republicans, who continue to play to the same right-wing base with the same belligerent ultra-nationalism that majorities of Americans have rejected in two successive presidential elections, simply can’t.

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