Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel was an omnidirectionally embarrassing debacle for everyone involved.
First there were the Senate Republicans who seethed with such theatrical contempt for Hagel and his ideas you would have thought the president had nominated Noam Chomsky for the post (who, incidentally wouldn’t be my first choice to head the Pentagon but who I’d take over Donald Rumsfeld in a heartbeat). Republican senator after Republican senator threw questions at Hagel that even by the debased standards of a nominating hearing were the cheapest kind of demagoguery and bullying.
Sen. Inhofe: Why do you think that the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?
Sen. Cruz: To go on Al Jazeera, a foreign network, broadcasting propaganda to nations that are hostile to us, and to explicitly agree with the characterization of the United States as the world’s bully I would suggest is not the conduct one would expect of a secretary of defense.
Sen. Fisher: You continue to hold, I believe, extreme views far to the left of even this administration.
If you were a visitor from another country and just listened to Hagel’s Republican interlocutors you would have had to ask, where did this moral monster Chuck Hagel come from, where had this seditious dissident been hiding for the last decade? And the answer, of course is: mostly in the Republican Senate Caucus!
Watching Lindsey Graham make the pained gassy face of displeasure while he listened to Hagel I wondered how he ever stomached sitting next to the guy on the foreign relations committee for all those years. Or how John McCain could have said this in 2000 about potential defense secretaries: “As far as secretary of defense is concerned there’s a lot of people that could do that, one of them I think is Sen. Chuck Hagel.”
Then there were the Democrats on the committee who seemed intent on steering clear of big policy questions or eliciting a debate about some of the bipartisan conventional wisdom, opting instead to praise Hagel’s war service, praise Israel, or gently lead the witness back towards the safe confines of approved foreign policy bromides and away from dangerous taboos.
Sen. Manchin: Your commitment that Iran should not under any circumstances have the ability to have a nuclear weapon, and I appreciate that position very much.
Sen. Donnelly: And I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me. We had an extensive discussion, and your understanding of the complex challenges we face in the Middle East, and the importance of our alliance with Israel.
Bill Nelson: I would like for you, as the committee is getting to know you, know something about your service in Vietnam and your combat experience. Were you wounded, Senator Hagel?
And finally there was the nominee himself, who appeared to have prepared for the hearing by skimming a few briefing talking points on his cab ride to the capitol, and who, rather than defending some of his more enlightened heterodox statements on foreign policy–about the necessity of diplomacy even with adversaries, the importance of exhausting every chance of peace rather than leaping into the horrors of war, the dysfunctional congressional politics of Israel/Palestine–seemed resigned to glumly recant.
Graham: Name one person, in your opinion, who is intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate.
Hagel: Well, first.
Graham: Name one.
Hagel: I don’t know.
Graham: Well, why would you say it?
Hagel: I didn’t have in mind a specific person.
Graham: Do you agree it’s 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’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby.
Hagel: I have already stated that I regret the terminology I used.
American Conservative editor Daniel McCarthy, who comes from the realist tradition of conservatism tweeted “This Senate hearing is like a Maoist self-criticism session.” And he was right.
Perhaps most depressing of all was what seemed to be the underlying assumption of nearly everyone on the dais that American military and foreign policy is doing just great. That the status quo establishment consensus on threats and possible wars is a holy catechism from which no heresy can be tolerated.
Instead of doing penance every single day for the rest of their natural lives for the deaths of 4,422 Americans and, according to a survey from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, the deaths of at least 650,000 Iraqis, the architects and principal advocates of the Iraq war angrily brayed for more: more aggression, bigger military, more wars. And the non-neo conservatives, the ones who’ve been proven definitively right by history, seemed to just meekly nod along. The DNC didn’t even issue a press release all day. And so all the lessons that could have been learned are unlearned.
As we enter the twelfth year of the longest war in the nation’s 237 years, so many of the senators seemed so intent on laying the groundwork for the next war against Iran that they could hardly trouble themselves to discuss the actual, ongoing war that Hagel would be charged with ending.
Iran was mentioned 108 times at the hearing, Israel 96 times, but Afghanistan warranted just 26 mentions. Why trouble ourselves with that old thing, when there are new, shiny conflicts on the horizon. Most revealingly, in nine full hours, with more than 40,000 words in the entire hearing transcript, the word war was mentioned 120 times. While the word peace, warranted just three mentions.
No wonder we’ve been at war for eleven years and counting.