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.”
At one point, the nominee said he was just “handed a note that I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say that obviously his position on containment — we don’t have a position on containment.”
“Just to make sure your correction is clear, we do have a position on containment, which is that we do not favor containment,” the Democratic chairman, Levin, corrected him.
“We — we do not favor containment. That’s the president’s position, and that’s my position,” Hagel stammered.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) went after Hagel over the comments he made about the “Jewish lobby” in America. “So when you talked about the Jewish lobby, were you talking about AIPAC? Were you talking about NORPAC? Were you talking about Christians United for Israel?” Wicker asked. “And do you still believe that their success in this town is because of intimidation and that they are, as you stated, ‘urging upon our government that we do dumb things’?”
“I’ve already said I regret referencing the Jewish lobby. I should have said ‘pro-Israel lobby.’ I think it’s the only time on the record that I’ve ever said that,” Hagel responded. “…On the use of intimidation, I should have used ‘influence,’ I think would have been more appropriate. …I — I should not have said ‘dumb” or stupid,’ because I understand, appreciate there are different views on these things.”
As if a coordinated strike, Graham was the next to hammer the point with Hagel — yet disassembling him like the trial lawyer he is, first asking how much we spend on defense.
And the nominee to be the next Defense secretary couldn’t answer for sure, but gave a guesstimate of 5 percent.
“Is that historically high or low?” Graham asked.
“Well, I think, generally, it depends on real dollars and wars…”
“Are we at war?”
Hagel acknowledged that the Afghanistan conflict is still ongoing.
“You said the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Graham continued. “…Name one person in your opinion who’s intimidated by the Israeli lobby in United States Senate.”
“I do not know,” Hagel said.
“Well, why would you say it?”
“I didn’t have in mind a specific person,” Hagel admitted.
“But you said, back then, it makes us do dumb things,” Graham said. “You can’t name one senator intimidated, now give me one example of the dumb things that we’re pressured to do up here.”
“We were talking in that interview about the Middle East, about positions, about Israel…”
“So give me an example of where we have been intimidated by the Israeli-Jewish lobby to do something dumb regarding the Middle East, Israel, or anywhere else.”
“I cannot give you an example,” Hagel said.
Hagel claimed he refused to sign a letter encouraging the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization “because I have generally had a policy, during my time in the Senate, that I didn’t think it was the right approach for the Congress of the United States to be sending leaders any instructions or any documents versus letting our president do that.”
“Do you believe that the sum total of all of your votes, refusing to sign a letter to the EU asking Hezbollah to be designated a terrorist organization; being one of 22 [on the] vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization; being one of two on two occasions to vote against sanctions that this body was trying to impose on Iran; the statements you’ve made about Palestinians and about the Jewish lobby — all that together, that the image you’ve created is one of sending the worst possible signal to our enemies and friends at one of the most critical times in world history?” Graham asked.
Hagel disagreed, but hedged when grilled about whether he’d reconsider those votes if he had the opportunity to do so again.
Then he said he simply didn’t recall a congressional letter siding against PLO leader Yasser Arafat in the Intifada, though he was one of just four senators who refused to sign.
“Well, all I can say, it was a very big deal at a very important time. And the lack of signature by you runs chills up my spine because I can’t imagine not signing a letter like that at a time when it really mattered,” Graham said. “And we will continue this conversation.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) noted that he wasn’t in the upper chamber when the letter was circulated.
“I would have signed it, but I would certainly join in urging that you reconsider and commit to the statement of support in the letter for the state of Israel. And if it’s appropriate now and applicable to today’s events, I hope you will consider expressing your support for it,” the Democrat chided Hagel.
“You know, I noted in your opening statement that no single quote and no single vote define you in the entirety,” Blumenthal continued. “And, perhaps not as a whole, but votes and quotes do matter. And I think that the questions about what you’ve said and what you’ve done in the past are entirely appropriate and I think also reconsidering, or your views evolving, is also appropriate.”
Just by the makeup of the committee, Hagel likely has enough votes to make it to the Senate floor. There, he might face a filibuster — which has been threatened by Graham if Panetta leaves without first answering questions about Benghazi.
Over in the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he was open to Hagel before the hearing, but early this evening asked Obama “to submit a viable nominee as soon as possible.”
“It pains me to reach this conclusion, given Senator Hagel’s service in the armed forces and in the Senate; but at this vital time when our national security hangs in the balance, it is my opinion that Senator Hagel is unfit for the job of Secretary of Defense,” McKeon said. “When it comes to the safety of this nation, the security of our troops, and the well-being of the American people, we can and must do better.”
Over in the White House briefing room today, spokesman Jay Carney, who said Obama wasn’t watching the hearings, was being grilled about Hagel’s comment that the government of Iran was elected and legitimate.
“Look, it’s the government that we deal with, and it is the government that continues to flout its international obligations, and that behavior is illegitimate,” Carney snapped after being pressed for a yes-or-no answer.