First things first: Chuck Hagel makes a poor witness for himself. That’s clear. He’s always been this way, of course: deliberative and slow of speech, stubbornly stating his positions without concern as to who else joined with him in them. When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attacked the Defense secretary designee over his opposition to the surge in Iraq, and he responded simply, “I’ll let history decide,” that was classic Hagel. He’s confident that historians will judge the diversion into Iraq after 9/11 as a major strategic error, and he’s probably right.
The strong, silent-type approach worked for the Nebraska Republican when he was on the other side of the firing line, just one of a gauntlet of senators asking questions, but it wasn’t working on Thursday, with him in the hot seat before the Senate's Armed Services Committee and getting it from all sides—from some Democrats and a battery of hostile Republicans—who began by praising his service to the nation and then proceeded to eviscerate him. During the daylong hearings, Hagel appeared to lose Republican after Republican, and even a couple of Democrats, including New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, looked a little doubtful. Hagel’s manner and responses did little to reassure anyone, it seemed, about his toughness on Iran and firmness on Israel.
The long pauses and agonizingly careful answers held up for the most part when it came to substance—though he did fumble once on whether he supported “containment” against Iran—but Hagel was moving at the pace of a tortoise while some of his harshest critics, like Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., were darting around him like hares.
Graham’s cross-examination was particularly devastating. For all the world, Hagel looked like the guilty suspect who is nailed in the final minutes of Matlock or Perry Mason. He started off badly, and then things got worse, when Graham began by asking him if the nation was at war, and the nominee responded, “I’m sorry, what?” The South Carolina senator hammered Hagel on his previous criticism of the “Jewish lobby’s” influence in Washington—which Hagel had partially taken back—asking the former senator if he could “name one person intimidated” by the Israeli lobby. Hagel couldn’t. “I didn’t have in mind a single person,” he said. Graham followed up by asking Hagel if he could name “something that was dumb” that the Israeli lobby had forced U.S. legislators to do, and Hagel said he couldn’t say what that was either. Graham, dripping contempt, then declared that Hagel’s combined votes over the years—against harsher unilateral sanctions on Iran, against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, among others—“send the worst possible signal to our enemies and friends at the worst possible time in world history.”
Perhaps one of the worst moments in a fairly bad day for Hagel came when even one of his apparent supporters, committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., was forced to restate his position for him after Hagel twice misspoke about a critical issue: whether the Obama administration would accept mere “containment” of Iran’s nuclear program, rather than prevention of it. Hagel, handed a piece of paper, 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," Hagel said. That’s when Levin interjected: "We do have a position on containment, and that is we do not favor containment."
Not good. Hagel’s biggest problem was that many of his past positions were well-thought-out, but he was not given much of a chance to explain them, and he rarely seized the moment to do so aggressively. The issue of whether to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard terrorists in 2007 was an important one, and Hagel and other senators such as Jim Webb, D-Va., had justifiable concerns. Webb’s suspicion, which Hagel agreed with, was that the Bush administration might use the designation to justify military action without Congress’s approval.
“Those who regret their vote five years ago to authorize military action in Iraq should think hard before supporting this approach,” Webb said. Hagel was one of those regretful senators. At the time, the Iranian government was a legitimately elected one (albeit within the constraints of the religious state) and it was, as it still is, a member of the United Nations. “I think Jim Webb’s argument was a strong argument,” Hagel said Thursday. “We have never designated part of a government as a terrorist organization.” It would have been, he said, “tantamount to giving the president authority to take military action.”
But it may not have been enough. Hagel is not very good at expressing regret. The fact is, despite having firmed up his opposition to Iran's nuclear program and emphasizing his strong support of Israel over the years, he still thinks he was right on most of those past votes. And he may well have been. And that’s going to cost him quite a few votes this time around.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this report incorrectly identified Chuck Hagel's party. He is a Republican.