2/4/13

I watched the entire confirmation hearing of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense on Wednesday. It was about seven hours. What a spectacle! The entire hearing can be watched here. This is part one and then you have two more parts on the same site at C-span.

The President’s Intention
This is a long blog so I am going to start with the most important point. It was clear to me and to most other people that Hagel is NOT in the mainstream of US politics on foreign affairs. His record and many statements, some of which I will discuss below, are well known (some less well known) and are all in the same vain. Following the hearing, most political observers, pundits, and reporters concluded with a great element of surprise that his performance showed incompetence, lack of knowledge of his subject, and lack of preparation. In other words, in addition to his extreme views and lack of conviction, the cloud of incompetence descended on his nomination.

The question is what was the president thinking when he nominated Hagel? Did he not know of his extreme views? Did he not know of his “incompetence”? Let me suggest the following—the president knows Hagel very well. He knows of his views and he ensured that Hagel is competent before he nominated him. The issue is different and worse, much worse.

The president is as extreme in his views on foreign affairs matters as Hagel is, and indeed probably more so. Hagel’s views fit the president’s view perfectly.

Furthermore, Hagel did not show incompetence in the hearing; he showed a lack of willingness to take back his statements and tone-down his views BECAUSE he was assured that he will be confirmed anyway and was instructed by the president to NOT tone down his statements and his views too much, as they are indeed going to represent the policy of the US in the next four years.

So, no, Hagel was not incompetent, nor was he generally not prepared. He told the senators EXACTLY the way things are. They are finding it so hard to believe because…well…because it IS hard to believe but this is what the US foreign policy under Obama will look like. No mistakes here, no lack of preparation, and no incompetence: What you see is what you get.

As usual, no one is ready to call a spade a shovel. I am telling you that Hagel will be confirmed in spite of his appalling performance, and he will carry out the president’s policy, which is even more extreme than his own.

Advice and Consent
I wonder what is all this process, hearing, and farce all about. The chances of his nomination being blocked are slim to none. If it is blocked, it will only be through the filibuster tool. (He will get 51 votes for sure.) That, to my mind, puts a question mark about the whole issue of approval by the Senate of presidential nominations. According to the Constitution, the Senate is tasked with ADVISING the president and then possibly CONSENTING. The fact that it is given the right to consent means that it also has the obligation to NOT consent at times. The president should also seek and listen to the Senate’s advice presumably before nominating someone.

If the Senate does not block the nomination in this case, when then is it appropriate for the Senate as a body to block a nomination? With the type of scrutiny people go through these days before they are nominated, it is very unlikely that a personal scandal will be found during the nomination hearings. The last time I can think of was during the Clinton administration, when his nomination for AG was found to have employed an undocumented worker after she was nominated. That was TWENTY years ago—these things are very unlikely to happen in our open media, Facebook age. So the only remaining issue on which a Senate can disagree with a nomination is a policy issue, which is what the Constitutional rule was put in for. It was not in order to find that a Senator was drunk or employed an undocumented worker. It was put in, in order to consent or NOT with the nominee policy views and thus EFFECT and influence the policy of the Executive Arm.

Given the fact that Hagel is SO much out of the main stream and the prevailing view is that he will be confirmed, what is the process for anymore? If the ruling party is willing to slavishly follow what its White House occupier does without any exception, why does one need the nomination process? It is obvious that the vast majority of Democrats in the Senate do not approve of Hagel’s views, but they will still vote for him anyway because this is what the president wants. But does this not go against the separation of powers principle? Is this not an abdication of the obligations under the Constitution? The bottom line is that those Democratic senators who really do not agree with Hagel but will still vote to confirm him are prostituting the process, are demeaning their role, and disrespecting the Constitution.

The Theme of the Hearing
Throughout the hearing, Senator Hagel was confronted by many senators with his prior statements and votes, all of which (those that he was confronted with) were clearly out of the mainstay of political views in Washington, DC. Whether it is on Israel, Iran, nuclear disarmament (Global Zero project, of which he was a member), or the “bloated” Pentagon (his term), Hagel’s general response was to deny recollection, assert that something was “taken out of context,” or not remembering the “details.”

On a few issues, he did actually voice regret. If he was a witness in a court case, I assert that most juries would have found him not credible due to his frequent fumbling, denial of recollection, stuttering when answering. Some of his “taken out of context” assertions were simply laughable, especially when seen against the background of other statements and votes of his, which were all consistent with the “out of context” statements. How can you describe a statement that a military action against Iran was “irresponsible, ineffective and not feasible” as out of context? The other surprising thing was his lack of command of the subject of the Pentagon and the military. For someone who is going to be the Defense Secretary, it was astounding. I was surprised to learn that he never served on the armed service committee while a senator. The president makes so much of his service as a soldier forty-five years ago, which lacks any relevance to his nomination today, but forgot to mention the very relevant fact that during his twelve years as a senator, ending less than five years ago, he was not involved in defense issues. We, and mostly the Senate, is being asked to respect him for his track record forty-five years ago, but ignore and gloss over his record over the last fifteen years.

Israel
Whenever the subject of Israel comes before Congress it is astonishing to me, as an Israeli who, although has lived abroad for decades, cares a lot about Israel. I never said or felt that Israel is “holier than though.” Israel makes many mistakes and is wrong on many things. On balance though, it is the only real and fully fledged Western-style democracy in the Middle East, the Near East, North Africa, and the Arab world. It exists in a VERY bad neighborhood and if allowed to fall, will be a first domino falling in a chain of many others. Still the level of support for Israel in the US Congress is shocking and truly astounding. When the prime minister of Israel appears before the JOINT houses of Congress more times than any other leader of any foreign nation since Israel was formed, when the standing ovations such prime minster gets exceeds any other standing ovation given to any other world leader INCLUDING the president of the US, when the support is so widespread and so bipartisan, especially given today’s extreme partisan times—it is simply unbelievable and to me, it is heartwarming. Indeed, at times, it moves me to tears. There simply is nowhere else in the world where Israel is held in such high regard, where truth, fairness, and justice prevail over practical considerations and day-to-day interests. I truly think that the support for Israel in the US Congress EXCEEDS the support for Israel in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Given Hagel’s history as one of less than a HANDFUL of senators who have been out of the mainstream in their lack of support for Israel, it was clear that this subject will be a huge issue in his confirmation hearing. At least 50% of the senators asked him specific questions regarding Israel and his negative statements toward it. Many others reiterated their support for Israel and their concern about his past statements. Some of the very pointed and harsh moments in his testimony revolved around his anti-Israeli statements. The criticism was bipartisan and although significantly more pronounced on the Republican side, there were enough Democrats who mentioned it and made clear their support of Israel.

Bottom line, without doubt, Hagel was “taken to the woodshed” over the issue of Israel publicly and repeatedly. The question in my mind is—was that effective? What were all these senators trying to achieve by the public flogging of Hagel on his Israeli views? If Hagel was a good person he would understand that his positions are not mainstream and he would have taken to heart the feelings and views of the vast majority of the Senators. But he is not a good person. He is vindictive, small-minded, and not a very bright person. I suspect that this experience will make him hate Israel more than he already does.

Iran
Given that Iran is the number-one national security issue facing the US, it is not surprising that with the exception of Israel, it was the most discussed topic in the hearing. Repeated statements by Hagel in the past regarding any military action being: “irresponsible, ineffective and not feasible,” as well as his refusal to participate in many Senate votes against Iran, were raised time and time again. While trying to dial back a lot of these statements by his “out of context” type mantra, he did not really deny them. He did, for the most part, stick to the so-called president’s position that the US has a policy of “no-containment” regarding Iran’s nukes. That is DC speak to try and say between the lines that the US will not allow Iran to have nukes and then try to contain it—it will prevent Iran from having nukes. That led to one of the most fascinating moments in the testimony.

Having stated in his pre-prepared statement that he supports the president’s “no-containment“ policy, in the “heat” of the questions and answers session, he actually said that he “supports the president’s containment policy.” I believe this was a Freudian slip. One of his minders thought it was important enough to correct this misstatement and told Hagel to correct it. Hagel commented, Oh, I was handed a note to say that I said that. I did not mean it. We have no policy on containment. The screw up of the correction (he should have said we HAVE a NO-containment policy—totally different meaning) led the flustered Senator Levin, the Democratic chairman of the armed services committee, to correct him yet again and to comment, No, you meant we HAVE a no-containment policy. Hagel’s continuing inability to get something so simple straight lead many to comment about his lack of preparedness and/or competence. I think otherwise. It is a result of him NOT believing what he was told he had to say and KNOWING that the president actually does NOT have a policy of no-containment. I think Hagel is competent but a bad liar, which is a compliment.

Throughout the discussion on Iran, Hagel and many senators repeatedly reasserted that “all options are on the table.” I wonder what the (expletive) this means! Why is it that these people can never say what they mean in simple words that normal humans understand? The answer is that they do not want to commit themselves. They will never give a simple answer that they can later not hide behind “out of context” excuses, or misunderstood excuses.

If I were a senator, here is how I would lead the charge on this issue:

Question: Senator Hagel, can you please confirm that you agree with the president that all options should remain on the table as far as preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Answer: I can confirm that. (He did that repeatedly.)

Question: Can you also confirm that you agree with the president’s stated position that the US will not entertain containment of a nuclear Iran?
Answer: I do. (He did that.)

Question: Would you agree that all options on the table means that if and when after all else failed, sanctions, negotiations, both direct and indirect, and every possible other alternative failed, that military power should then and only then be used? Do you agree that this is what we mean when we say, “all options are on the table”?
Answer: I am sure Hagel would struggle, stutter, and look for every escape hatch, but a determined senator could have elicited from him that this is exactly what “all options” mean, if and when all else failed, the military option is the one that will be used.

Question: If Iran were to conduct a nuclear weapon test, which would show the world that they have nukes, and confirmed that they have a number of war heads already on rockets ready to be launched, would you agree that at that stage, all else HAS failed and military force should be used?
Answer: Only G-d knows how he would have gotten out of that. He certainly would NOT have said a simple or even an implied yes, as he does NOT believe that the use of military force is warranted, nor does the president. They do NOT have a policy of no-containment. Worse than that, I do not think they have a policy OF containment either. They have a far more extreme policy of “could not care less.” I put to you that if Israel is attacked by Iran using a nuclear weapon, the US under president Obama will determinately and fearlessly move to…seek a UN resolution. Urgently, of course.

Senators Cruz, Graham, and Ayotte
These three Republican senators were clearly the most impressive during the hearing. All three used their past as attorneys to prosecute Hagel on his past statements, writings, and actions or omissions.

Ayotte: The least aggressive of those three was Ayotte who, with elegance but stealthy prosecutorial determination, stripped him naked when he tried to wriggle out of the implications of the Global Zero report that he co-authored. The report clearly gives the impression that the authors recommend a unilateral disarmament by the US. Hagel kept fumbling and denying that, suggesting that it was only an “illustration.” Ayotte would not have any of that.

Graham: No elegance here…not as far as I am concerned. I am not a fan of this supposed new star of the Republican caucus. However this time, he used his prosecutorial training to nail Hagel effectively. He focused on Hagel’s famous comment about the “Jewish Lobby,” which Hagel took back and voiced regret for its anti-Semite tones, but Graham would not let him get away with that. He focused on the rest of the comment. Asking Hagel to name one senator who was “intimidated” by the Israel lobby, Hagel said he could not name even one. Graham then asked him to name one decision of the Senate that was “dumb” and due to the “intimidation” by the Israel Lobby—Hagel could not give one example. It was entertaining and effective.

Cruz: The cake goes to the novice senator Ted Cruz from Texas. Very aggressive, no platitudes here. He nailed Hagel completely by uncovering an interview that Hagel gave to Al Jazeera. To a great effect, Cruz actually played the soundtrack of the relevant parts of this interview during the hearing. Hagel was visibly distraught and with reason—what he said there is really shocking. The prize goes to Cruz for uncovering this interview, which Hagel conveniently “forgot” to provide the transcript of to the senators.

There were two elements of the interview that were discussed: Hagel’s agreement with a caller (part of the interview) that Israel was guilty of war crimes and more importantly (with a different viewer) that the US was a bully. Let’s just say that it did not go well for Hagel. Cruz continued his attack with another question about a statement that Hagel made on the floor about “sickening slaughter” that Israel was committing in Lebanon (in response to Israel being attacked by Hezbollah). All these statements were a surprise to me and to most people. In everything that was written about the Hagel nomination and referencing some of his most controversial statements, these were not mentioned. Kudus to Cruz for unearthing it and for prosecuting these points with effective determination.

It is just the ignorant and naïve commentators like Peggy Noonan that could make a stupid comment to suggest that Cruz lacked respect for Hagel because Hagel served in the military forty-five years ago and Cruz did not serve. Noonan is out of her depth, a far from brilliant commentator, and the harm she does to the Republican cause by calling herself a Republican and then preaching to the Republicans is material. It is time for the WSJ to cut her weekly column off.

Summation
The hearing went along predictable lines: platitudes from 90% of senators toward their kinsman, softball questions from most of his own party senators (in this case, Democrats, the president’s party. He is ostensibly a Republican. The term RINO was invented for people like him but he goes way beyond that), and more aggressive questions from the other party.

Hagel was vague, fumbling, and showed no command of his subject. He never remembered things that were negative for him but had a detailed memory of things that were positive for him (that is known as selective memory). He looked very much under pressure, which is surprising given that he was a senator for twelve years. He tried to run away from his record in everything that he was confronted on. Overall he was just not impressive.

My own impression was that it was a terrible nomination hearing. Pundits and experts that I heard were unanimous in describing it as either one of the worst such hearing ever, or indeed THE worst. So why is there unanimous agreement that he will be confirmed in spite of all that? What is the purpose of all these hearings and this one in particular?

When is a nominee so much out of the mainstream for the Senate to use its power of advice and consent?
What is the meaning of the power to consent if you always do consent?

When is enough, enough?