The Best Defense

Hagel before Senate Armed Services: A confirmation hearing or a mugging?

I just finished reading the transcript of last week's hearing on the confirmation of former Sen. Charles Hagel to be defense secretary. The question in the headline is what I asked myself as I read it.

I heard a lot on Friday about what a poor job Sen. Hagel did in his confirmation hearings to be secretary of defense. So I sat down with the transcript over the weekend. I was surprised. I've spent many hours covering confirmation hearings, but I never have seen as much bullying as there was in this hearing. The opening thug was Sen. Inhofe (which I expected -- he's always struck me as mean-spirited), but I was surprised to see other Republican senators kicking their former Republican colleague in the shins so hard.

Here's John McCain badgering his erstwhile buddy:

Senator MCCAIN. ...Even as late as August 29th, 2011, in an interview -- 2011, in an interview with the Financial Times, you said, "I disagreed with President Obama, his decision to surge in Iraq as I did with President Bush on the surge in Iraq." Do you stand by those comments, Senator Hagel?

Senator HAGEL. Well, Senator, I stand by them because I made them.

Senator MCCAIN. Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?

Senator HAGEL. Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to support that out.

Senator MCCAIN. The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.

Senator HAGEL. I will explain why I made those comments.

Senator MCCAIN. I want to know if you were right or wrong. That is a direct question. I expect a direct answer.

Senator HAGEL. The surge assisted in the objective. But if we review the record a little bit--

Senator MCCAIN. Will you please answer the question? Were you correct or incorrect when you said that "The surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Where you correct or incorrect, yes or no?

Senator HAGEL. My reference to the surge being the most dangerous--

Senator MCCAIN. Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That is a pretty straightforward question. I would like an answer whether you were right or wrong, and then you are free to elaborate.

Senator HAGEL. Well, I am not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today.

Senator MCCAIN. Well, let the record show that you refuse to answer that question. Now, please go ahead.

Senator HAGEL. Well, if you would like me to explain why--

Senator MCCAIN. Well, I actually would like an answer, yes or no.

Senator HAGEL. Well, I am not going to give you a yes or no. I think it is far more complicated that, as I have already said.

Tom again: FWIW, Hagel later got in the point that his comment was that "our war in Iraq was the most fundamental bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam." I think that assessment is correct.

(Senator Chambliss then took a moment to abuse the English language: "We were always able to dialogue, and it never impacted our friendship.")

Then Lindsay Graham waded in.

Senator GRAHAM. ...You said, "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. I am not an Israeli senator. I am a U.S. Senator. This pressure makes us do dumb things at times." You have said the Jewish lobby should not have been -- that term shouldn't have been used. It should have been some other term. Name one person, in your opinion, who is intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the U.S. Senate.

Senator HAGEL. Well, first--

Senator GRAHAM. Name one.

Senator HAGEL. I don't know.

Senator GRAHAM. Well, why would you say it?

Senator HAGEL. I didn't have in mind a specific--

Senator GRAHAM. First, do you agree it is a provocative statement? That I can't think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said.

Name one dumb thing we have been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby.

Senator HAGEL. I have already stated that I regret the terminology I used.

Senator GRAHAM. But you said back then it makes us do dumb things. You can't name one Senator intimidated. Now give me one example of the dumb things that we are pressured to do up here.

Senator HAGEL. We were talking in that interview about the Middle East, about positions, about Israel. That is what I was referring to.

Senator GRAHAM. So give me an example of where we have been intimidated by the Israeli/Jewish lobby to do something dumb regarding the Mideast, Israel, or anywhere else.

Senator HAGEL. Well, I can't give you an example.

Next to throw some punches was David Vitter:

Senator VITTER. In general, at that time under the Clinton administration, do you think that they were going ‘‘way too far toward Israel in the Middle East peace process"?

Senator HAGEL. No, I don't, because I was very supportive of what the President did at the end of his term in December-January, December 2000, January of 2001. As a matter of fact, I recount that episode in my book, when I was in Israel.

Senator VITTER. Just to clarify, that's the sort of flip-flop I'm talking about, because that's what you said then and you're changing your mind now.

Senator HAGEL. Senator, that's not a flip-flop. I don't recall everything I've said in the last 20 years or 25 years. if I could go back and change some of it, I would. But that still doesn't discount the support that I've always given Israel and continue to give Israel.

Near the end of the day's verbal beating, Senator Manchin said, "Sir, I feel like I want to apologize for some of the tone and demeanor today." That was good of him.

You all know I was not that much of a Hagel fan before. But now I feel more inclined to support him, if only to take a stand against the incivility shown by Senators Inhofe, McCain, Graham, and Vitter, the SASC's own "gang of four."

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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