Hagel gets his clock cleaned
Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel walked into the Dirksen Senate Office Building with a smile on his face at 9 a.m. on the morning of his hearing for confirmation to the post of secretary of defense.
Once he was seated, though, Republican panelists on the Senate Armed Services Committee took turns wringing out the apparent inconsistencies in his rhetoric over the years.
Since President Barack Obama nominated Hagel for the post, the former Republican Party senator from Nebraska has come under sustained scrutiny for controversial statements that run the gamut of U.S. defense and national security issues.
The meat of this scrutiny has come from his former colleagues in the Republican Party who have expressed alarm at his statements on Iran as a terrorist state, the interest groups that drive congressional policy toward Israel, global nuclear disarmament, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though Hagel dutifully answered many of his colleagues’ questions on these issues, some of them he attempted to side step, only to find himself up against a persistent challenge. The freshman tea party senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, had a television rolled out to play an interview Hagel did with the news agency Al Jazeera in 2009.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for another, pressed Hagel on his prior statements in opposition to the Iraq War troop surge in 2007, asking if he had been right or wrong in calling it the most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.
“That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer,” McCain said, cutting Hagel off when he began to explain the characterization.
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer,” Hagel said.
When pressed again on whether the surge was the most dangerous blunder since Vietnam, he said, “As I’ve said, I’ll defer that judgment to history.”
“Then let the record show you refused to answer the question,” McCain said. “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it.”
He warned that Hagel’s refusal to answer the question would affect the Arizona senator’s vote on the nomination to head of the Pentagon.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Jr. (R-Ga.) addressed the SecDef pick’s views on a so-called red line demarcating a point past which the United States would take military action against Iran, whose continued nuclear program and aggressive rhetoric toward Israel has piqued alarm among observers.
“We know there’s some things happening over there that are very serious, so how far do we go?” Chambliss asked.
Hagel responded, “Well, I think the president has gone as far as he should go publicly on that.”
Obama has said repeatedly that all options are on the table in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, including military action, but has not specified how far the rogue state’s progress will go before such action would take place.
What constitutes when further action should be taken is always something that should not be discussed publicly, he said.
One of Hagel’s other most harshly criticized comments was a statement he made that a so-called Jewish lobby has inappropriate sway over policy decisions in Congress.
Republican Sens. Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) both needled Hagel on this, who walked back his language each time. Graham was not as easily satisfied as Wicker on the matter, interrupting him at one point to demand, “Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the Israeli or Jewish lobby.”
“I don’t know,” Hagel said.
Graham asked if Hagel agreed with him that it was a provocative thing to have said. Hagel said he agreed.
When pressed about whether he might reconsider labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, a move which Hagel voted against while a senator, he eventually caved, saying he would. Graham relented on the issue and left the chamber.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Debra Fischer (R-Neb.) asked how a report by nuclear disarmament advocacy group Global Zero’s description of unilateral disarmament was consistent with his testimony at the hearing that he supported only negotiated, multilateral moves. Hagel was a co-author of the report, which the Heritage Foundation has called radical.
In response, Hagel repeatedly called the report an illustration of possible scenarios rather than recommendations for actions the U.S. ought to take with its nuclear arsenal. The hang-up on the language—as the differences between illustration versus recommendation and should versus could—extended the exchange, which was hardly resolved by its end.
In a series of policy questions answered in writing in advance of the hearing, Hagel balanced his allegiance to the president’s positions with the real challenges of maintaining the strongest military in the world in an age of austerity.
“If confirmed, I would continue to urge the Congress to pass a full-year appropriations bill for the Department of Defense and for other federal agencies so that the Department and other federal agencies may be run efficiently, with the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, as the taxpayers expect and deserve,” he wrote.
When Sen. Kirsten Gilligrand (D-N.Y.) asked about his view on the war in Afghanistan, Hagel testified once again that he supported Obama’s position. In this case that means a troop drawdown and limiting a residual force’s objectives to counterterrorism operations and continuing to train the Afghan police and military forces.
At the close of the hearing, committee Chairman Carl Levin indicated that a vote to confirm Hagel will likely be scheduled for Thursday.