You don’t have to be that good to fend off a committee of showboating senatorial blowhards. Hillary Clinton demonstrated that a week or so back when she unleashed what’s apparently the last word in withering putdowns: What difference does it make?
Quite a bit of difference it seems. This week, an over-sedated Elmer Fudd showed up at the Senate claiming to be the president’s nominee for secretary of defense, and even the kindliest interrogators on the committee couldn’t prevent the poor chap shooting himself in the foot.
Twenty minutes in, Chuck Hagel was all out of appendages.
He warmed up with a little light “misspeaking” on Iran. “I support the president’s strong position on containment,” he declared. Breaking news!
Obama comes clean on Iran! According to Hagel, the administration favors “containment.” I could barely “contain” my excitement! Despite official denials, many of us had long suspected that, lacking any stomach for preventing a nuclear Tehran, Washington would settle for “containing” them. Hagel has been a containment man for years: It worked with the Soviets, so why not with apocalyptic ayatollahs? As he said in a 2007 speech, “The core tenets of George Kennan’s ‘The Long Telegram’ and the strategy of containment remain relevant today.” Recent history of pre-nuclear Iran — authorizing successful mob hits on Salman Rushdie’s publishers and translators, bombing Jewish community centers in Buenos Aires, seeding client regimes in Lebanon and Gaza — suggests that these are fellows disinclined to be “contained” even at the best of times. But, even if Iran can be “contained” from nuking Tel Aviv, how do you “contain” Iran’s exercise of its nuclear status to advance its interests more discreetly, or “contain” the mullahs’ generosity to states and non-state actors less squeamish about using the technology? How do you “contain” a nuclear Iran from de facto control of Gulf oil, including setting the price and determining the customers?
All fascinating questions, and now that Hagel has announced “containment” as the official administration position, we can all discuss them.
Unfortunately, as Hillary said the other day, “our policy is prevention, not containment.” So five minutes later the handlers discreetly swung into action to “contain” Hagel. “I was just handed a note that I misspoke,” he announced, “that I said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say that we don’t have a position on containment.” Hagel’s revised position is that there is no position on containment for him to have a position on.
Carl Levin, the Democrat chair, stepped in to contain further damage. “We do have a position on containment, and that is we do not favor containment,” he clarified. “I just wanted to clarify the clarify.”
Containment? Prevention? What difference does it make? Could happen to anyone. I well remember when Neville Chamberlain landed at Heston Aerodrome in 1938 and announced the latest breakthrough in appeasement: “I have here a piece of paper from Herr Hitler.” Two minutes later, he announced, “I have here a second piece of paper from my staffer saying that I misspoke.” Who can forget Churchill’s stirring words in the House of Commons? “If, indeed, it is the case that I said, ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender!’ then I misspoke. I meant to say that we’re keeping the situation under review and remain committed to exploring all options.”
It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re as expert in all the nuances of Iranian affairs as Chuck Hagel. After he’d hailed Iran’s “elected, legitimate government,” it fell to another Democrat, Kirsten Gillibrand, to prompt Hagel to walk it back. Okay, delete “elected” and “legitimate”:
“What I meant to say, should have said, is that it’s recognizable.”
“Recognizable”? In the sense that, if you wake up one morning to a big mushroom cloud on the horizon, you’d recognize it as the work of the Iranian government? No, by “recognizable,” he meant that the Iranian government is “recognized” as the government of Iran.
“I don’t understand Iranian politics,” he announced in perhaps his least misspoken statement of the day. But the Iranians understand ours, which is why, in an amusing touch, the foreign ministry in Tehran has enthusiastically endorsed Hagel.
Fortunately, Iran is entirely peripheral to global affairs — it’s not like Chad or the Solomon Islands or the other burning questions the great powers are currently wrestling with — so it would be entirely unreasonable to expect Hagel to understand anything much about what’s going on over there. So what of his other, non-Iranian interests?
“There are a lot of things I don’t know about,” said Hagel. “If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do.”
He then denied that “I will be running anything.” Don’t let the fact that the secretary of defense presides over 40 percent of the entire planet’s military spending confuse you. He’s not really “running” a thing — or, as he was anxious to assure us, “I won’t be in a policy-making position.”
Really? So what’s the job for then? Just showing up at the office and the occasional black-tie NATO banquet? Most misspeakers loose off one round and then have to reload, but Chuck Hagel is a big scary “military-style assault weapon” of a misspeaker, effortlessly peppering the Senate wainscoting for hours on end. Late in the day, after five o’clock, he pronounced definitively: “It doesn’t matter what I think.”
“It does matter what you think,” insisted New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte.
With respect to my own senator, I think it matters that he seems incapable of thinking — or at least of thinking through his own Great Thoughts.
There are over 300 million Americans, and another 20 million more Undocumented-Americans about to be fast-tracked down the soi-disant “path to citizenship.” Surely, from this vast talent pool, it should be possible to find someone who’s sufficiently interested in running the planet’s biggest military not to present himself on the world stage as a woozy, unfocused stumblebum. In an exquisite touch, responding to reports that Hagel was “ill-prepared,” someone in the White House leaked that he had been thoroughly “coached.” In other words, don’t blame us: We put him through the federally mandated Confirmation Hearing for Dummies course. He doesn’t have to be a competent defense secretary; he just has to play one on TV for a couple of hours. But even that’s too much to ask of an increasingly dysfunctional political system: The Senate disdains to pass a budget, 70 percent of U.S .Treasury debt is bought by the Federal Reserve, month-long negotiations to cut spending turn out in the final deal to increase spending . . . and the president’s choice of defense secretary tells the world he has no idea what our policy on Iran is.
Hagel may know nothing about Iran, but he’s an incisive expert on America.
During an appearance on Al Jazeera in 2009, a caller asked him about “the perception and the reality” that America is “the world’s bully” — and Hagel told viewers that he agreed. Confronted with this exchange by Senator Ted Cruz, Hagel floundered. There was no aide to slip him a note explaining that the incoming SecDef takes no formal position on whether or not his own nation is “the world’s bully.”
Ah, if only. In the chancelleries of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Cairo, Pyongyang, the world’s bullied are laughing their heads off.