Finally John Warner let Chuck Hagel speak. Warner, having declared that he was discarding his prepared remarks in the interest of sincerity and brevity and then spoken for 15 minutes, turned to Hagel with a friendly warning: “You’re on your own.”
Truer words, as they say.
Hagel would testify for nearly eight hours in the service of his confirmation to be the country’s next secretary of defense. And what started as an unsteady, unimpressive performance soon turned disastrous. Republicans were tough and aggressive, pushing Hagel to elucidate his past positions and to explain his sometimes odd statements. Democrats were accommodating and generous, repeatedly rephrasing Hagel’s jumbled syntax and reframing his confusing claims.
Despite their efforts, Hagel was indeed on his own. And any senator who takes the advise-and-consent role seriously had to have real concerns about the nominee’s basic competence.
By the end of the day, Hagel had declared the Iranian regime the “legitimate, elected” government of the Iranian people (it’s not); he’d refused to acknowledge that the Iraq surge was a success (it was); he’d declined several opportunities to declare the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist entity (it is); and he seemed not to understand the relationship between the Budget Control Act and the coming sequester (the first created the second).
Even for senators who came into the hearing expecting to support Hagel—out of respect and admiration for his military service or deference to presidential prerogative—any one of these bizarre misstatements might be enough on its own to generate doubts about Hagel’s understanding of his prospective job and the world. Taken together, they might be disqualifying.
But there was much more. Hagel made several basic errors of fact. For instance, Hagel justified his much-discussed comment about the “bloated” Pentagon budget by claiming that he made it “before the Budget Control Act.” In fact, it came as a response to a question about sequester cuts. Hagel was clearly confused about the BCA and the sequester throughout the day, so perhaps this mistake was innocent.
It’s hard to be quite as forgiving about another erroneous claim. Hagel was questioned several times about a report that he coauthored for Global Zero, an organization opposed to nuclear weapons. The report—not surprisingly, given the group’s raison d’être—called for significant cuts to U.S. nuclear arms stockpiles. Hagel claimed the paper wasn’t meant to be prescriptive, but its plain language—it called the cuts “desirable” and argued that they “should happen”—belied his argument.
It wasn’t the only past position Hagel tried to recast. Among the most problematic: his refusal to vote for an amendment that would have classified Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity. At the time of the vote, late September 2007, the facts about the IRGC’s terrorist activities had been well known for years. The IRGC and its Quds Force had actively engaged in funding, training, and equipping jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan responsible for killing hundreds of American troops. The IRGC played a crucial role in enabling insurgents, particularly in Iraq, to shift from attacks using basic improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which the U.S. military had learned to counter, to the far more lethal explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) during the war’s deadliest years. This information was widely reported, and Hagel, whose biography boasts that he was a “senior member” of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had access to reams of additional, classified intelligence documenting the relentless efforts of the Iranians to kill Americans.
At the hearing, when Hagel was asked about his opposition to the amendment, he pointed to former Virginia senator Jim Webb. Webb had opposed the amendment, too, arguing rather hysterically that a vote for the amendment would provide the Bush administration with the opening it allegedly sought to go to war with Iran. The amendment passed 76-22; the Bush administration continued its futile attempts to engage the Iranian regime, and there was, of course, no war.
Later in the confirmation hearing, Hagel was asked why he was to the left of many Democrats on the vote, including Hillary Clinton (who voted for it) and Barack Obama (who cosponsored a similar measure). Hagel suddenly dropped his claim that he was simply following the lead of Jim Webb and struck the pose of a maverick, arguing that he’s an independent thinker and not the least bit influenced by what other senators do. And yet not long after that, Hagel was once again citing Webb as the reason he voted against labeling the IRGC a terrorist group.
On this issue and so many others, it was as if Hagel didn’t understand why he’d held the views he had or was reluctant to discuss them. That’s not necessarily novel. Confirmation hearings often involve nominees revising their long-held views with the hope of making themselves more acceptable to those voting on their nomination. Hagel’s problem—or one of them, anyway—is that he often seemed to mean what he said originally and not to buy his own (alleged) change of heart.
Hagel, to his credit, apparently understood just how poorly he was doing. If senators voted only on the basis of his performance before the committee, it’s hard to imagine anyone supporting him. As his testimony drew to a close, Hagel anticipated and tried to answer two of the main objections senators surely have to his confirmation, first acknowledging his own ignorance and then touting as an asset his own powerlessness.
“There are a lot of things I don’t know about,” he said. “If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do. I will have to.” Moments later, Hagel adopted the minimalist argument his advocates have lately advanced as part of their case on his behalf. “I won’t be in a policymaking position.”
If the best you can say on your own behalf is that you’re aware of your limitations and you won’t be very consequential, it’s not a great case.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.