First, There Is the Thesis. Then There Is the Antithesis. Finally, There Is the Trainwreck of a Senate Armed Services Hearing.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way regarding my opinions of Chuck Hagel:

  • He served honorably in Vietnam. I applaud him for it.

  • He is not an anti-Semite. Yes, I know that he said “Jewish” lobby. Yes, it was a stupid statement. But I have no firm evidence for the proposition that he hates Jewish people, and, as a Jewish person, let me make clear my utter disdain and contempt for those who hate Jewish people.
  • He once called James Hormel, the Clinton Administration’s nominee for Ambassador to Luxembourg (he got confirmed) “aggressively gay.” It was a very stupid statement, deeply insulting, and possibly an actual indicator of bigotry on Hagel’s part. It was far more serious than “Jewish” lobby. And yet, I would like to believe that Hagel’s apology for the statement was not some mere confirmation conversion, and since Hormel himself has accepted the apology and supports Hagel’s nomination, I will assume for the purposes of this post that the apology was and is sincere. Maybe it isn’t, but I do like to think the best of people, so I will try to do so here.

I trust that the above bullet points make clear that I will not base my opinion regarding Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense on the reasons given by many of his opponents. And, for the record, I am trying my level best to keep an open mind on Hagel’s nomination. If asked about his chances for confirmation, I would state that they are relatively good at the time of the writing of this blog post.

Of course, if asked the same question before his appearance at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, I would have said that his chances for confirmation were excellent. But that was before Hagel decided to cause his own supporters to wonder whether he (a) lacks the intellectual ability necessary to know the things he needs to know to be a good Secretary of Defense, or (b) did not care enough to have done his homework in advance of the hearings.

The hearings, it is safe to say, were terrible for Hagel. Democrats inclined to support him were astonished by how badly he floundered in answering questions he should have anticipated and prepared for well before the hearings. He was utterly no match for skeptical senators who made mincemeat of his past statements regarding the Israel lobby and its supposed power to intimidate senators and make the U.S. do “dumb” things; Hagel could not name a single person who was intimidated by the lobby and could not name a single “dumb” thing the lobby forced down the throats of American foreign/national security policymakers. And lest you think that only conservative critics of Hagel thought that he crashed and burned, I give you Dave Weigel:

There’s no reason to judge televised hearings as theater, but several times, Hagel was faced with questions that had been litigated in the press, and meandered through them awkwardly. He explained votes on Iran as prudent decisions from a different time, and place, then called the regime an “elected, legitimate government, whether we agree or not.” It was in line with his philosophy, but it was a finger-in-the-eye way to put it. When Sen. Roger Wicker (a decided “no” vote) asked Hagel about his “Jewish lobby” quote, which everybody was expecting, Hagel gave a slow, uhhh-soaked three-part answer about how he should have said “Israeli” instead of “Jewish,” said “influence” not “intimidate,” and never called anybody “stupid.”

That went worse than the buzziest story of the morning—the confrontation with John McCain. The Arizona senator, who started to break with Hagel during the 2006-2007 buildup to the Iraq surge, simply refused to let that issue go.

“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” said McCain.

“I would like to…” started Hagel.

“Are you going to answer the question?” asked McCain.

“It’s going to be the judgment of history,” said Hagel.

“History has made its judgment,” said McCain, “and you are on wrong side of it.”

Hagel had given countless interviews and speeches about the surge, some of them after it ended, answering the question of whether the extra troops were responsible for a 2007 drop-off in violence, or whether other factors were responsible. Instead, he referred to “1,200 dead Americans’ lives” as the factor in his opposition.

There is no reason to think for a single moment, of course, that the government in Iran is either elected or legitimate. That Hagel either does not know this, or pretends not to know it is nothing short of astonishing.

Michael Hirsh details another jaw-dropping fumble on Hagel’s part:

Perhaps one of the worst moments in a fairly bad day for Hagel came when even one of his apparent supporters, committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., was forced to restate his position for him after Hagel twice misspoke about a critical issue: whether the Obama administration would accept mere “containment” of Iran’s nuclear program, rather than prevention of it. Hagel, handed a piece of paper, said, “I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say we don’t have a position on containment,” Hagel said. That’s when Levin interjected: “We do have a position on containment, and that is we do not favor containment.” 

In his typically obtuse way, Andrew Sullivan screeches and hollers over the fact that containment “was once good enough for Mao and Stalin, but not for Iran today.” Comme d’habitude, Sullivan misses the point, and let it be known that in the event that you remain interested in reading him after he moves from the Daily Beast to his own eponymous site, you can pay $19.99 per year for access to all of Sullivan’s blog posts (assuming that you don’t just decide to read them via RSS and forgo having to pay any fee whatsoever), so that you can continue to have the pleasure of watching as he misses point, after point, after point.

Whether containment is or is not the right policy to apply regarding Iran’s attempts to gain nuclear power (and potentially, a nuclear arsenal) was not the issue in the hearings. We can have that debate and we should have that debate, but the issue was ensuring that Hagel was (a) aware of administration policy regarding Iran; and (b) willing to support that policy. Hagel demonstrated that he was either completely unaware of the Aministration’s stance on the issue—the Administration does not favor containment; rather, it favors prevention—or he was trying to upset the Administration’s stance by going rogue in his comments. Either Hagel hasn’t mastered his brief on the issue or he was trying to supersede the administration’s policy with his own pronouncements, which is tantamount to insubordination for any would-be Secretary of Defense in his/her relationship with the president. And for the love of Heaven, the guy who was forced to call Hagel out on the issue was Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who presumably wants to help the Democratic president of the United States get Hagel confirmed (though one can forgive him for reconsidering after the hearings). If that wasn’t a clusterscrewup for Hagel and for Team Obama, I don’t know what is.

None of this is difficult to understand. But Sullivan apparently doesn’t understand it. He also doesn’t appear to understand that Hagel—oh, how shall I phrase this?—meep-meeped himself royally before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Quite a trick, that.

I would like to think that Hagel just had a bad day. We all have bad days from time to time. But if this is the best that Hagel can do, then we ought to worry that after weeks of briefings, orientation, murder boards, and God-knows-how-much-coaching, Hagel still might not have what it takes to be a good Secretary of Defense. And if I end up opposing Hagel’s nomination, I will do it on those grounds, not on the grounds of what his service in Vietnam might mean, or what he said once about a “Jewish” lobby or what he might have said about James Hormel, who has decided to forget any concerns or anger he might have had and has stated that he will support the Hagel nomination.

Incidentally, while I have your attention on this issue, gentle readers, dare I hope that some senator will ask Chuck Hagel something about this?

Asking the question under oath would be especially useful. For those blessedly unfamiliar with M.J. Rosenberg, click here.