I wonder if Chuck Hagel ever had the option of not behaving like a docile and seemingly beaten dog in his confirmation hearings. He made his reputation over a decade as one of the Senate’s few truth-tellers; in seven or so hours of grilling before Senate interrogators, he seemed determined to erase that past, so that everything he has ever signed or said could be understood “in context” — a phrase he used frequently — to be little more than standard Washington mush. I suspect that emphasizing his adherence to Capitol Hill imposed conventional wisdom about Israel (America’s greatest friend; no country in history has ever had a better friend!) was necessary to get critical Democrats like Chuck Schumer on board, and it would be genuinely difficult to communicate a more nuanced view of the American relationship with Israel, one that is not hostile but more realistic, and a view Hagel undoubtedly holds, in hearings before unfriendly and unscrupulous interrogators. Still the performance was disappointing to those who admire Hagel precisely because of his readiness to break with hawkish conventional wisdom.

Many of the Republicans were actually kind of shocking, and illustrated quite dramatically that if the GOP is engaged in “rethinking” any of its positions or ways of presenting them, foreign policy is not among them.

McCain is probably still acting out his sentiments about the Iraq war, over which Hagel was right and McCain was wrong and bitter over much that has happened to him since, including a decisive thumping by Barack Obama. But the sheer demagogy of a Ted Cruz bears more examination. Dave Weigel is one of several writers who nailed it. (Caution: it takes more than few words to explain the deceptive nature of Cruz’s questions.)

New Sen. Ted Cruz brought three—count ’em—visual aids to his interrogation of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel. He played two clips from Hagel’s interviews on Arab-language media, attempting to prove that Hagel agreed with callers who accused Israel of “war crimes” and the United States of “bullying,” because he quickly agreed with the questions and moved on. The third aid was a chart blowing up a July 31, 2006 quote from Hagel, during Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah.

“In a speech on the floor of the Senate you referred to Israel’s military campaign against the terrorist group Hezbollah as a, quote, ‘sickening slaughter,'” said Cruz. “Do you think it’s right that Israel was committing, quote, a ‘sickening slaughter,’ as you said on the floor of the Senate?”

As with so much else today, Hagel was caught short, and tried to explain why “slaughter” might occur if “war crimes” didn’t. It was another hit he should have seen coming; the Weekly Standard, in a morning cheat sheet of Hagel quotes, reported that Hagel “accused Israel of carrying out a ‘sickening slaughter’ in Lebanon.”

But it’s misleading. Hagel’s full speech is available on C-SPAN, and here’s the larger context of the quote.

How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon, is going to enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East?

The sickening slaughter on both sides must end, and it must end now. President Bush must call for an immediate cease-fire. This madness must stop. The Middle East today is more combustible and complex than it has ever been. Uncertain popular support for regime legitimacy continues to weaken governments in the Middle East. Economic stagnation, persistent unemployment, deepening despair, and wider unrest enhance the ability of terrorists to recruit and succeed.

An Iran with nuclear weapons raises the specter of broader proliferation and a fundamental strategic realignment in the region, creating more regional instability. America’s approach to the Middle East must be consistent and sustained, and it must understand the history, the interests, and the perspectives of our regional friends and allies.

The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.

Hagel wasn’t accusing Israel of carrying out a slaughter, or war crimes. He described the conflict that way—a sickening slaughter was occuring—blaming both sides, and quickly following up by criticizing Iran and invoking the “special relationship.” Cruz’s truncation of the quote completely changed the meaning.

Cruz later assayed a sort of McCarthyite guilt by association, trying to establish a connection between Hagel and Chas Freeman. He hadn’t much to go on and Hagel couldn’t rise to the bait and express that Freeman, one of the wisest foreign affairs minds in the country, was unjustly smeared from an administration intelligence job four years ago. Cruz was clearly banking on the idea that if Freeman could be successfully smeared, so could Hagel. John Judis highlights the parallel of Cruz’s interrogations to Joseph McCarthy’s tactics — which terrified politicians of both parties, and succeeded in depriving America of the kind of foreign affairs expertise which might have prevented the Vietnam war. Concludes Judis:

Americans who worry about democracy need to keep on this guy. He is a not dumb drunk like McCarthy. He’s very smart and slick like some up and coming European rightists or Israel’s Naftali Bennett.

I’m not prognosticating how the voting will go. Hagel chose to be defensive, to soft-pedal his mildly dissident thoughts about Iran or Israel, and this may well be the only route to confirmation, and I have to assume that he and his White House handlers know the nuances of the Senate better than I. A friend, lamenting Hagel’s groveling, writes:

Trying to cheer myself up, I have recalled the scene in the film “Lincoln” in which the “Radical Republican” abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens refuses to rise to the bait on the House floor and, in order to enhance the chances of passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, publicly renounces his most deeply held belief – that all men are created equal. I would like to believe that, if confirmed, Chuck Hagel will put American interests first – even if he dares not say so publicly.