Heading into Thursday’s confirmation hearing for the Secretary of Defense position, I assumed that Chuck Hagel would have prepared responses for the inevitable questions about his past record and statements, and that he’d sail through the Senate relatively easily. Instead, he turned in as bad as a performance as you’ll see from a cabinet nominee – stumbling and bumbling on questions that were entirely predictable.
For the past two months or so, ever since Hagel’s name was floated as a possible Defense Secretary, his past statements and positions on Israel, Iran, defense cuts and nuclear disarmament have been widely debated in the media. Yet he was unable to respond to the most basic charges of his critics on the Senate Armed Services Committee when given the chance.
Though he expressed regret for using the term “Jewish lobby” – he couldn’t explain the philosophy behind his general statement about there being a pro-Israel lobby that intimidates lawmakers into doing dumb things, whatever the lobby was called. Though he said he thought all military options should be on the table on Iran, he couldn’t adequately explain why in 2006 he declared it not a “viable, feasible, responsible option.” Moments after mentioning the Obama policy of “containment” of Iran, he was passed a note leading him to backtrack to say the administration didn’t have a policy. To which committee chair Carl Levin had to further clarify by saying the administration position was to oppose containment. He called Iran a “legitimate” elected government in the morning session of the hearings, then had to walk it back in the afternoon, saying he should have said “recognized” government. He also misrepresented a report he had co-authored that proposed unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament. For those who missed the hearing, the Republican National Committee has an 80-second video that summarizes the numerous times he had to revise previous statements.
The central problem Hagel faced all day was that he has a long track record on foreign policy that he had to revise in order to have a shot at Senate confirmation – and any argument he could make to defend his past positions would undermine his ability to assert that he genuinely holds his current positions.
As to where his confirmation prospects stand after this debacle, it’s hard to say. No Democrat has yet come out against his nomination, so barring an unexpected shift, blocking the appointment would require a Republican filibuster. So it’s still an uphill battle for Hagel opponents. But if anything was going to stiffen the spines of Republicans mulling a filibuster, this hearing would have to do it.