Chuck Hagel, former Nebraska Senator and Presidential nominee for Secretary of Defense, spent two weeks making contact with his former colleagues. He talked to Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Carl Levin (D-MI) about Israel’s security, and tried to distance himself from statements he made in the Senate about the “Jewish Lobby”. He spoke to a former ally, John McCain (R-AZ) about the Iraq War and their opposing views on the “surge” (Hagel and Obama opposed it) and its ultimate success. He spoke to current Nebraska Senators, Johanns and Fischer. Fischer said she had open and “frank” discussions, which suggests she told him her concerns which Fischer (newly appointed member to the Senate Armed Forces committee) was certain to raise in today’s confirmation hearing.
The “buzz” during the current recess in the confirmation hearing is, how in the world did Hagel NOT see this coming? To review his performance so far, he has the demeanor of someone who does not know what the issues are, what the Administration’s policy is, what the position of the Republican’s is, and how to answer questions with clarity and decisiveness. Qualities you hope for with a Secretary of Defense.
He began asserting a single statement or position in the past did not necessarily define his beliefs or policies if confirmed for this position. He seemed to desire a “clean slate” to move forward. Then, he attempted to answer questions of the committee members, and felt the blast from “both barrels” of the Republican arsenal.
He sat at a table, facing the committee, alone. No legal support or second chair offered him the chance to confer, and make sure his information was accurate. At one point he got a message from one Democratic Senator, passed like a classroom note, pointing out he misspoke on the President’s policy on Iran. This ended in his re-stating his position on the use of sanctions, saying he did not believe in them (although the President said this is his approach to deterring their interest in getting nuclear weapons). He tried to re-define his opposition to the “Jewish Lobby” by saying he opposed undue “Jewish influence” in the Senate; then was challenged by Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to name any Senators who were influenced in their policies by “Jewish influence”. He could not. He called the government in Iran “legitimate” but then had to re-state his intention was to say they were “recognizable” because our allies recognized them and we use informal negotiations in addressing issues with them.
He was challenged for signing the Global Zero report, which says the best policy is total nuclear disarmament with the United States taking the lead in reducing our number of nuclear weapons, first. He signed off on this report, which is much more than an idle or misunderstood statement or phrase in a session of the Senate.
With issues ahead for the Defense Department like the inclusion of women in combat (a policy change of the out-going secretary, Leon Panetta); active warfare in Syria (which has engaged with Israel over apparent weapons movements toward Lebanon, and possible terrorist support to Hamas and Hezbollah), and North Africa; and the possible fallout from sequestration (the part of the fiscal cliff that’s unresolved, and contains deep budget cuts for the military) the next Defense Secretary inherits many important issues that call for quick and definitive resolution.
Placing a valiant, Vietnam vet, with two terms in the Senate, alone, facing a known hostile force seems representative of the Administration’s view of the military. Whether the assumption was, Democrats have the votes so there is nothing to worry about; or the aura of “untouchable” status the President seems to enjoy should spill over to his appointees; or Republicans should beat up on a fellow Republican for the amusement of the Administration, the confirmation is probably still going to move forward.
However, if Hagel continues to struggle with answers, information, and policy, and something truly controversial ends up being exposed, the simple majority needed (55 Democratic Senators) could be pushed to needing the filibuster-proof majority (60 votes) and that might end up sinking this nomination before it ever gets a run on the open, if not stormy, seas.