Politics & Policy

Harriet Hagel

Chuck Hagel during Senate testimony, January 31, 2013.
We thought Chuck Hagel was wrong. Now we know he’s unqualified, too.

‘Shaky.” “Struggling.” “Awkward.” “Not impressed.” “Unresponsive and bumbling.” “Disaster.” These are some of the words used by observers left, right, and middle to describe Chuck Hagel’s appearance before the United States Senate yesterday.

They might be underselling it. Hagel attempted to contextualize his comments about the intimidating “Jewish lobby” by noting that that was only time he used those words “on the record.” Later, in response to a challenge from Senator Graham to name one person or one “dumb” government policy negatively influenced by Jewish intimidation, Hagel drew a blank. When asked if he stood by an Al Jazeera interview in which he agreed with the characterization of the United States as “the world’s bully,” Hagel split follicles by noting that, “My comment was it’s a relevant and good observation. I don’t think that I said I agree with it.” He answered a question about his vote against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group by claiming it would have been unprecedented to call an arm of “an elected, legitimate government” terrorists, “whether we agree or not.” An hour or so later, White House press secretary Jay Carney dodged a question about whether the president agreed.

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Hagel also ran afoul of the president — and perhaps of his wits — when he said that he “support[ed] the president’s strong position on containment,” rather than prevention, of a nuclear Iran. Later, after being handed a note, he said “I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say we don’t have a position on containment.” But this wasn’t quite right either, as pointed out by Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.). “We do have a position on containment, and that is we do not favor containment,” Levin said. “I just wanted to clarify the clarify.”

Mr. Hagel best summed up his eight hours ordeal when he assured his interlocutors that “if confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do.”

To be fair to the man’s plight, I’ve gone through my own flip-flops and perambulations on the Hagel nomination. At first I thought him so ill-suited to the job, and so widely understood to be so ill-suited to the job, that president Obama could hardly appoint him. When the president went ahead and appointed him anyway — perhaps as an act of second-term-honeymoon defiance in the face of the preemptive implosion of the Susan Rice nomination to State — I admitted my mistake:

It appears as though the Editors of National Review Online – not to mention yours truly — were too hasty in concluding last month that “Chuck Hagel is definitively not the man who should be the next secretary of defense. And considering the problems it will create for the Obama administration should they nominate him, we trust he won’t be.”

Because it now seems clear that Barack Obama will get Chuck Hagel as his next secretary of defense.

But I availed myself of an escape hatch, the kind they teach you about on day one of Pundit School:

Things could still change, of course. Confirmation hearings could bring new information to light. Hagel could damage himself in testimony. Or a unified Republican caucus could mount a filibuster.

[Steps through hatch.] Things have changed. The confirmation hearing has brought new information to light. Hagel has damaged himself in testimony. And a unified Republican caucus might just mount a filibuster (Ted Cruz, for one, is already talking about placing a hold on the nomination).

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In short: Before, there was a big cross-section of the foreign-policy center and right that thought Hagel unwise. Now there may be an even bigger cross-section realizing he’s unqualified. It’s too early to say how badly Hagel’s performance has damaged his chances for confirmation. [Constructs another escape hatch.] My guess is it’s now slightly better than a 50/50 proposition that he gets in.

But perhaps more interesting than what his performance tells us about Hagel is what it tells us about Obama. It was clear before the hearing that the president saw in Chuck Hagel somebody who shared his (let’s be charitable) studied neutrality on the Israel/Palestine dispute, his skepticism about the desirability of American power projection, and his desire to trim a “bloated” defense budget. Mr. Obama thought he was getting a kindred spirit, more in line with his views, and in a better position to enact them, than just about any nominee he managed to retain in his first term. And a Republican to boot. But it now seems like the White House may have been so in love with Hagel’s measurables that it forgot to look at the video tape, to anticipate (obvious, heavily telegraphed!) lines of attack, and to coach Hagel through effective responses. There is simply no other way to explain the former senator’s performance today.

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Nor, if you ask vets on the Hill (or Twitter), is there much of anything to compare it with. I’ve heard Bork’s name mentioned a few times, but of course that’s way off base. Bork’s interrogators were more hostile and less decorous than Hagel’s, and Bork was well equipped to rebut them, while Hagel looked out of his depth. No, the closest comparison here is to a set of Senate hearings that never happened — those for Harriet Miers.

Like Hagel, Miers was nominated by a recently reelected president at the height of his powers. But that wasn’t enough. Critics across the ideological spectrum were offended not just by her slight résumé, but by the president’s seeming indifference — or even contempt — for both the institution of the Supreme Court and the norms of “advise and consent” that her nomination bespoke. As if the fact that she was his preference — and his friend — were sufficient to recommend her to an office of great moment.

Hagel’s résumé isn’t quite so thin. His personal chumminess with the president is not so obviously the prime force driving his nomination. But unlike President Bush, who was wise enough to let Miers withdraw before hearings could vindicate his critics, President Obama has let Hagel flounder so badly that Senate Republicans and Democrats alike should think carefully about just how much respect the president has for the Pentagon — or for them.

— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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