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Hagel on the Dock

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 [1]. (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 [2] 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 [3], 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 [4]:

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.

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#1 Comment By Philip Giraldi On February 1, 2013 @ 11:32 am

It’s equally amazing to watch the spin at work – the Washington Post had its article on the grilling on page 3 of today’s paper and Israel is only mentioned once (in the context of Hagel whole heartedly supporting all things Israeli). It is an attempt to make it appear that the opposition to Hagel is really about other issues, not Israel. But if one watched the actual interrogation the subject of Israel and its ever expanding security needs was mentioned frequently, more than any other single issue.

#2 Comment By SDS On February 1, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

“I would like to believe that, if confirmed, Chuck Hagel will put American interests first – even if he dares not say so publicly”

My sentiments exactly….

Oh, and Ted Cruz proves himself just another neo-con….
I guess that say a lot about the “Tea Party” priorites, as well….

#3 Comment By James Canning On February 1, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

I continue to think Chuck Hagel was quite right to oppose the “surge” in Iraq, and it indeed is fair to think John McCain prefers this mistake by the US not become too widely known.

#4 Comment By Uncle Dickie On February 1, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

America’s greatest friend; no country in history has ever had a better friend!

A mantra worthy of Animal Farm, ain’t it?

… a friend who spies on us, rips us off, sells our military tech to China, steals our passports for use by its assassins, endangers the lives of Americans at home and abroad by building illegal settlements, and stuck us with a tab of nearly a trillion dollars over a 40 year period (not counting externalized costs like Iraq).

In short, the kind of “friend” your father used to warn you about …

#5 Comment By Stuart On February 1, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

Clearly Hagel was told to play “I am not Hagel” to ensure that Democratic Israel Firsters don’t bolt, and try to get some Republicans (maybe 5 to block a filibuster?).

While a lot of us would have liked the real Hagel to slap the neo-cons down it would not have won him a single vote, and could have potentially cost him a few.

Unfortunately, we learned that Hagel does not play “I am not Hagel” very well. Actually though, that’s why so many of us like him – he’s a straight shooter that has a hard time BSing.

#6 Comment By Lloyd On February 1, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

Hagel not only was docile. He was unprepared. Of course considering his skill set is not at all suited to running something like DOD might explain that.

#7 Comment By William Dalton On February 2, 2013 @ 12:28 am

The spectacle of seeing people with a full record of strong convictions papering them over has been commonplace in the United States Senate for almost three decades when considering Supreme Court (and even lower court) nominations. Chuck Hagel is playing by the rules of a well-worn playbook.

What would be interesting is for the media to bring up clips of Senator Hagel when he questioned prior nominees to head the Defense Department and other sensitive positions. Was he ever an attack dog when questioning Clinton’s nominees? In any event, it is facetious to say he wasn’t prepared for what he underwent.

#8 Comment By TomB On February 2, 2013 @ 7:11 am

I think people are missing the potentially great significance of this hearing: With all this obsessive talk about Israel coming especially from the biggest war-backers, who now can still be in the dark as to what their central concern is?

So let the people in the military especially, tired now of what seems the plans of these big war-backers to keep them on Mideast occupation/IED-catching duties forever, see this hearing over and over so that they at least know the motivation behind the people who want to keep them there forever.

#9 Comment By Geoff Guth On February 3, 2013 @ 7:38 am

Uncle Dickie! Israel is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful country I’ve ever known in my life!