CAPITOL HILL: Former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel absorbed some tough criticism today from some fellow Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee but he looks likely to win confirmation.
Whether he is confirmed may not matter very much in terms of when and why and where the United States might go to war or in how the Pentagon budget is managed. In Washington, “smart people” often say people are policy. The Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee are certainly making that assumption in their questioning today of Sen. Hagel. But an awful lot of other “smart people” are saying that Hagel and John Kerry are a continuation of the Obama administration status quo and do not represent any refresh of national security policies.
In fact, the choices of Hagel and Kerry seem to be proof of the influence of Tom Donilon, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, and the senior White House aides who shape national security policy. The policy answers given at Hagel’s nomination hearing, combined with those of Kerry during his nomination hearing, seem to paint both men as stewards of existing policies rather than bold policymakers in the mold of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Both sides of the aisle hammered Hagel about just how much he loves Israel and whether he would support Israel on most things. Hagel said, effectively, yes, yes, yes. He reaffirmed US spending support for Iron Dome, the anti-missile system that was pretty good at downing Hezbollah’s unsophisticated missiles late last year.
But Hagel has clearly lost the love of some of his party colleagues. Sen. John McCain, his fellow Vietnam War veteran, banged away at Hagel’s views on the Iraqi surge.
“Were you right or wrong about the surge? I asked a direct question and I want a direct answer,” McCain demanded. “I think history has already made its decision and you were wrong.” When Hagel waffled, McCain broke right in: “The question is, were you right or wrong.”
Hagel refused to offer a yes or no answer And McCain threatened to vote against him. “Your refusal to answer on whether you were right or wrong on it may affect my vote.” However, this is the Senate and McCain can be a very rational actor. Note his use of the word “may.”
For his part, Hagel said later in the hearing that: “I’m not that sure; I’m not that certain [whether the surge was necessary].” That honesty and public willingness to admit the subtleties and gray areas of defense policy may well help Hagel as the process continues.
While Hagel was the target of a persistent stream of GOP accusations and innuendo about his positions on Iran and Israel and a few other issues, the GOP was not a solid block. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who used to sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee with Hagel and recently announced he won’t run again for the Senate, sounded willing to support his former colleague.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a rising star who oft-times sets the tone of GOP attacks on national security issues, was critical but did not sound as if she had made up her mind.
But when you boil all this down, Hagel looks likely to get nominated, says GOP defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen. “I expect Hagel to be confirmed but the SASC hearing will weaken already shaky, tepid GOP support,” the American Enterprise Institute analyst said in a tweet. Those of us who had to listen to the hearing were surprised at how tentative, almost shaky, Hagel often sounded. Eaglen asked rhetorically, who ran his murder board, making it clear she didn’t think much of Hagel’s performance.
But we come back to whether or not Hagel, the former senator, matters as much as the policies decided by the White House. And President Obama has made it abundantly clear that he likes Hagel’s approach.