When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped before two congressional committees on Benghazi this month, she was ready for every question fielded at her and, save for the infamous “what does it matter” moment, didn’t crumple under the pressure.
Today, President Obama was likely wishing some of that preparedness would have rubbed off on his Defense secretary nominee.
Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing before his former Senate colleagues was, in a nutshell, a minefield despite the simple, predictable questions lobbed his way. In short, he appeared exceptionally uncomfortable and unsure for a man who would command the most powerful military on Earth.
In an hours-long hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee today, Hagel was consistently on the defensive, especially under questioning from Senate hawks John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
McCain and Hagel were once friends serving together in the upper chamber, but the Vietnam veterans divided over the path forward in Iraq and there were no signs today that rift has healed — especially since Obama tapped Hagel to replace retiring Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
Hagel’s Democratic supporters on the committee — or, more accurately, supporters of the will of Obama — tried to publicly show a benefit of the doubt to the nominee.
“Senator Hagel’s reassurance to me and my office that he supports the Obama administration’s strong stance against Iran is significant,” said Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). “…But as we struggle with the difficult security challenges facing our nation, the president needs to have a secretary of defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity, and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force.”
The ranking member on the committee, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), let it be known quickly he doesn’t believe Hagel is that person.
“As I told Senator Hagel in my office some time ago, two weeks — over two weeks ago, I guess it was, that after a long and careful review of his record and the things that he has said and the things that I have personally experienced with him, that we’re too philosophically opposed on the pressing issues facing our country, and for me to support his nomination,” Inhofe said in his opening statement. “…Too often, it seems, he’s willing to subscribe to a world-wide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.”
“Though I respect Senator Hagel, his record to date demonstrates that he would be a staunch advocate for the continuation of the misguided policies of the president’s first term,” the Oklahoma senator continued. “Retreating from America’s unique global leadership role and shrinking the military will not make America safer. On the contrary, it will embolden our enemies, endanger our allies, and provide opportunity for nations that do not share our interest to fill a global leadership vacuum we leave behind. It is for these reasons that I believe that he’s the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time.”
Hagel had former Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who served for 24 years on the committee, and John Warner (R-Va.), who served for 30 years, at the witness table to promote his nomination. Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) also showed up in the audience to support Hagel.
Nunn said a Defense secretary must be “someone who’s well informed, has an open mind, engages in critical thinking, who is capable of and who seeks out independent thought,” and “someone who sets aside fixed ideologies and biases to honestly evaluate all options and then provides his or her candid judgment to the president and to the Congress.”
“Chuck Hagel comes as close as anyone I know to having all of these qualities,” he said.
Inhofe asked Hagel why he believes the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports his nomination.
“I have a difficult enough time with American politics, Senator,” Hagel responded. “I have no idea.”
And he had an even harder time keeping up with McCain.
“Members of this committee will raise questions reflecting concerns with your policy positions. They’re not reasonable people disagreeing. They’re fundamental disagreements,” McCain said, launching into a series of statements Hagel made about the Iraq surge, including calling it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
“I stand by them because I made them,” Hagel said of his history of remarks.
“Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?” McCain asked.
“I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out,” Hagel responded, admitting under further grilling that “the surge assisted in the objective.”
When McCain persisted about whether he was right or wrong on the surge, Hagel said, “Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer.”
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not,” McCain said. “I hope you will reconsider the fact that you refused to answer a fundamental question about an issue that took the lives of thousands of young Americans.”
On Syria, Hagel said the Obama administration is “very engaged” in trying to stop the bloodshed.
When McCain asked how many more Syrian civilians would have to die before he would support a no-fly zone, Hagel said, “Well, I don’t think anyone questions the terrible tragedy that is occurring there every day. It’s a matter of how best do we work our way through this so that we can stop it to begin with.”
“Did you disagree with President Obama on his decision for the surge in Afghanistan?” McCain continued.
“I didn’t think that we should get ourselves into — first of all, I had no original position as far as no formal position,” he said, before McCain confronted him with his own 2011 quote stating his position as opposite of Obama’s.
“That was my personal opinion, yes,” Hagel admitted.
Democrats gave the nominee breathers by encouraging him to expound upon his service in Vietnam and frame his support for Global Zero in terms that didn’t make it sound like America’s nuclear arsenal would be zeroed. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he would have liked to serve with party-bucker Hagel because “sometimes I feel very lonely.”
But even Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), retiring before he faces a possible primary challenge, piled on Hagel, quizzing him about voting against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization.
“We have never made any part of a legitimate independent government, designated them or made part — made — made them part of a terrorist organization. We’ve just never done that,” Hagel said. “…We were already in two wars at the time and I thought that this made sense, and so I voted against it.”