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A Profoundly Depressing Spectacle

The Hagel Hearing

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

Watching the Senate Armed Services Committee interact Thursday with former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel-President Obama’s candidate to be secretary of defense-was a profoundly depressing experience.

Hagel’s performance in his “confirmation” hearing was remarkable; he spent the day eating his own words under pressure mostly from Republicans-so much so that it is hard to understand what views he might actually hold.

Unlike most effective politicians who are always clever at saying nothing or changing positions, he was so inarticulate at doing so that it is also hard to understand how he ever could have been elected twice to the Senate from Nebraska.

As fumbling and apologetic as Hagel’s answers were to the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, even my low expectations for the performance of the senators on that committee went unmet.

Several Democrats seem mostly interested in protecting themselves from being seen as too cozy with Hagel because of his previous statements about Israel, its issues and its lobby (eg. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.), and others seemed mostly concerned about pork (eg. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.). Only moderate Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) seemed to be more worried about Hagel’s declining fate on the committee than feathering his own political nest.

However, even the worst of the Democrats strode as giants compared to the Republicans, who were all relentless in their cheap shots to justify their predetermined hostility to Hagel.

Particularly offensive was Senator John McCain‘s (R-Ariz.) insistence that the witness pay homage to McCain’s dogma on the sanctity of the “surge” as rescuing America from ignominy in Iraq (which it did not).

Senator Jim Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) bumbling small-mindedness was a gruesome introduction of himself to the nation as the leading (most senior) Republican on the armed services committee. If this is the best the Republicans can do to explain themselves to the country on national-security issues, their domicile in America’s political wilderness has a long way to go before it is over.

How ironic that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) should use intimidation to corner the cowering Hagel into professing he could think of no senator that was intimidated by the Israel lobby.

Having seen that sort of intimidation for decades as a Senate staffer (both from senators and lobbyists), it was a sad moment indeed in the annals of the Senate to see a witness not stand up to the tawdry tactics; a historic moment for pride as a citizen it was surely not.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spent his time, like McCain, demanding that Hagel agree with Cruz’s attacks on him, even attempting to put words in Hagel’s mouth that Hagel finally said he never said.

That exchange was the one time in the entire hearing that Hagel stood up for himself. But it came so late, and was so fleeting, that he clearly did not undo the harm his mealy-mouthing did to his own nomination.

The Hagel nomination to be secretary of defense is surely now in trouble. The Republicans had their way with him so easily that they surely will widen the offensive-and its offensiveness-to make it a major partisan food fight. The White House has already put out a statement defending Hagel with a defensiveness that clearly denotes its concern, and it must now know it has a problem.

Hagel’s blood is in the water-poured there by himself-and now the Republicans are sure to pour in all the bile and poison their fund raising machines can come up with, which is a lot.

Welcome back to the good old Washington of 2012.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight. For 31 years he worked on national security issues for U.S. senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.