Chuck Hagel, who earned a pair of Purple Hearts as a grunt in Vietnam, all but earned a third on Thursday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He came away from seven hours of testimony politically bloodied, but seemingly not mortally wounded — yet. Nonetheless, the presumed defense secretary did himself no favors Thursday.
While many in the national-security community have endorsed Hagel’s nomination, some GOP lawmakers have argued that he is too soft on Iran, anti-Israel, and too eager to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Hagel denied the charges, but he did stumble, and many of his answers seemed tentative. He said, most notably, that the Obama Administration endorses “containment” of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, when it actually embraces “prevention.”
The consensus among congressional aides late Thursday was that Hagel will likely win committee support, largely along party lines, and also ultimately confirmation from the full Senate. But their mood was less certain late Thursday than it was on Wednesday.
(MORE: Can Chuck Hagel Overcome?)
The most dispiriting element of the day was the focus on Hagel’s past policy views. Whatever they may have been, a defense secretary doesn’t make policy – he carries out the President’s orders. And the emphasis on the past wasted time that could better have been spent on the not-inconsiderable challenges the Pentagon faces in the future. It seemed that Hagel was chaff for committee Republicans, whose real target was the commander-in-chief.
Part of the hearing seemed to take place in an alternate universe, where Democrats spoke in favor of the nomination of the former Republican senator from Nebraska, while his GOP comrades voiced their opposition. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the new ranking Republican on the committee, said he would oppose Hagel because “he would be a staunch advocate for the continuation of the misguided policies of the President’s first term” – as if Obama’s re-election, and the national mood it reflected, counted for squat.
For those too young to have witnessed the real thing, the Vietnam War replayed during the hearing, pitting sitting Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., against Hagel, who had served as a co-chairman of McCain’s failed 2000 presidential bid.
But this time, instead of the soldier fragging the officer, as often happened in Vietnam, the officer fragged the soldier. It was the ultimate in friendly fire: a hotshot Navy pilot trying to doom the nomination of an Army grunt who served at just about the same time in Vietnam.
Hagel famously said in 2006 that the then-impending “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq “represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” The reinforcements, of course, ended up calming Iraq, and – with help from the Sunni “Sons of Iraq” movement – pushed Iraq away from the brink of civil war.
McCain has never forgiven his former friend’s words. Thursday morning, he finally had Hagel in his crosshairs. He pulled the trigger relentlessly:
McCain: Do you stand by that — those comments, Senator Hagel?
Hagel: Well, Senator, I stand by them because I made them. And —
McCain: You stand by — were you right?
Hagel: Well –
McCain: Were you correct in your assessment?
Hagel: Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out, but I’ll —
McCain: I think — we — committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.
Hagel: I’ll explain why I made those comments, and I believe I had, but —
McCain: I want to know if you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.
Hagel: The surge assisted in the objective. But if we review the record a little bit —
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? Were you correct or incorrect?
Hagel: My —
McCain: Yes or no?
Hagel: My reference to the surge being both dangerous —
McCain: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question.
Hagel: Well —
McCain: I will — I would like to answer whether you were right or wrong, and then you are free to elaborate.
Hagel: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today.
It wasn’t clear whether Hagel upset McCain because Hagel had labeled the surge a disaster, Vietnam a disaster – or both. But it didn’t make much difference.
More important was the Hagel team’s apparent inability to prepare for McCain’s all-but-inevitable question, and to outfit their man with something better than verbal hillbilly armor to respond to it.
It was these kinds of issues – the plain-spoken Hagel having his words repeatedly read back to him by Republican senators, eager to cast every passage in the most dire light – that took its toll over the long day of questioning. Many of Hagel’s answers were halting, and wrapped in the hindsight of someone acknowledging he wished he had said things differently.
He spoke, truth be told, not like an officer (or a senator), but like a soldier. Yes, he once said that there was no reason for Israel to “keep Palestinians caged up like animals,” he conceded to Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, after the lawmaker recited a Hagel quote. “If I had an opportunity to edit that, like many things I’ve said,” Hagel added, “I would like to go back and change the words.”
It’s part of the grunt’s lingo: you say what you feel. Only officers and senators speak for the record. Hagel, if he makes it, would be the first Vietnam veteran ever to run the Pentagon. He’d also be one of the few enlisted men to hold the post; James Forrestal (1947-49) and William Perry (1994-97) both served short stints as non-officers in the U.S. military before going on to run the Defense Department.
It was a strange hearing, given the firepower backing Hagel. He had been introduced by two former giants of the Senate – and the armed services committee — Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Republican John Warner of Virginia. His nomination has been endorsed by a who’s-who of national-security heavyweights, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former defense secretary Robert Gates, and GOP stalwarts including Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft.
But the ack-ack of GOP opposition seemed to rattle the White House, as well as the nominee. Some of the Republican fire had hit its target.