Left Targets Cruz, Conservatives--but Case Against Hagel Stronger than Ever

Decrying yesterday’s filibuster of the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as Secretary of Defense, the White House and the media have decided to target his critics, especially Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Yet they should welcome the extension of debate, which provides an opportunity for Senators who once expressed concerns, such as Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to revisit their conclusions in light of new information.

The case for Hagel remains exceedingly weak. Some Democrats claim that he has the necessary qualifications to lead the Pentagon, but not even the Obama-friendly Politico supports that argument, noting Jan. 31 that Hagel’s main qualification was “politician.” Hagel’s supporters keep citing his admirable military record, but it is not a qualification for a primarily civilian post which requires an intimate knowledge of defense policy.

Hagel, by his own admission, does not know much about the Department of Defense. During his two terms in in the Senate, he served on the Foreign Relations Committee, not the Armed Services Committee. He has some broad views about how the country’s defenses ought to change, but these are shifting, and vague. He has argued both for and against defense cuts, for example, and does not understand the defense sequester.

The case against Hagel, on the other hand, grows stronger every day. From a left-wing point of view, his weaknesses were obvious from the start. He had expressed hostile views toward gays and supported “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He had led the fight to block climate change from moving through the Senate, and would now be stepping in to lead a Pentagon that has committed in recent years to the use of green fuels and technology.

Hagel also had subscribed to the slate of socially conservative views demonized by the Democrats as a “war on women,” such as opposition to abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother. The Armed Services Committee also quietly examined criticisms about how Hagel had dealt with allegations of sexual harassment among members of his staff--a bad sign when the military is trying to stamp out such abuse.

For Democrats, an additional irritation was that Hagel’s nomination sent a signal that the party still lacked the self-confidence to run the Pentagon. As Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos wrote in December: 

Hagel is a Republican who voted for all of George W. Bush's pet wars....And yes, while he has reneged on his past support for our nation's disastrous wars, there are plenty of good qualified Democrats who weren't idiotic enough to support them in the first place.  

It's time for Democrats to embrace the fact that yes, they know what the hell they're doing on matters of national security.

The only case for Hagel, from a left-wing perspective, was that the “neoconservatives”--i.e. those who favored a dominant military, an assertive foreign policy, and a strong U.S.-Israel alliance--were opposed to him. Hagel’s nomination offered the anti-war movement, especially its anti-Israel elements, a chance to shift the debate in their favor.

The Obama administration worked hard to prevent Democrats from defecting, sending Hagel to consult with Schumer and to write regretful letters to the likes of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), expressing regret for having used such phrases such as “Jewish lobby” and reassuring her of his commitment to carry out President Barack Obama’s policies, with which his own previous views were in apparent conflict on a variety of subjects.

But the administration could not head off Republican queries, especially as more new information about Hagel’s past positions, much of it unearthed by the conservative new media, began to surface. Even the mainstream media began to take a skeptical view, with editorials opposing Hagel in both the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

The principal worry was Hagel’s views on Iran. Not only had Hagel opposed the use of military force, if necessary, to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but he had also opposed the use of sanctions. He had also advocated “engaging” the Tehran regime, which to this day shows no interest in direct talks. Hagel’s appointment was therefore a sign of weakness in opposing Iran--the worst possible signal at the worst possible time.

Hagel’s views on Israel were also troubling--not least because of their implications for the American military. He had opposed designating Iranian-backed Hezbollah as a terror group, and advocated U.S. talks with Hamas in Gaza. He also denounced Israel’s war of self-defense against Hezbollah in 2006, calling it “disproportionate” and equating it with terror against Israeli civilians, undermining the basis of the U.S. war against terror.

Much controversy centered around Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby,” a misnomer that implies Jewish control over U.S. foreign policy, and which was in vogue among the extreme left at the time as a scapegoat for the war in Iraq. Hagel now says that he misspoke, but new allegations that he claimed in 2007 that Israel controlled the U.S. State Department reinforce worries that he may have entertained antisemitic bias.

Perhaps the most self-destructive position Hagel had previously adopted was support for global nuclear disarmament, including the specific idea that the U.S. should begin to disarm unilaterally if necessary. In his confirmation hearing, Hagel attempted to deny that he had endorsed that view, but patient cross-examination by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) demonstrated that Hagel had, in fact, affixed his name to that radical suggestion. 

The most recent nuclear test by North Korea, the ongoing atrocities by a Syrian regime that Hagel once suggested the U.S. should court, the continued belligerence of Iran and persistent terrorism by Hamas are all evidence that Hagel’s views on defense and foreign policy were naive at best, and dangerous at worst. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also took Hagel to task for his strident opposition to the successful surge in Iraq.

In his confirmation hearing, Hagel not only failed to defend his views, but failed to show familiarity with the official policies of the administration he hoped to enter, mistakenly referring to a policy of “containment” with Iran and describing the Tehran regime as a “legitimate” government. Having failed to demonstrate that his recent shifts on several issues were sincere, he meekly asserted that his own views on policy would not matter.

The problem with Hagel’s performance at the hearing was not just that he stumbled, but that he dissembled, making a number of assertions that were shown to be untrue. Hagel also failed to provide more than four of the “hundreds” of speeches he had given in previous years, and explained that he had “given the committee every copy of every speech that I have that’s out there, every video that I have that’s out there.”

Yet in the days that followed, several speeches emerged about which Hagel had not informed the committee, including some within the five-year timeframe that members of the committee had requested. Hagel and the Obama administration maintained that these speeches had been “informal,” but the fact that Hagel spoke extemporaneously did not make the speeches any less official, as video of one such speech confirmed.

Hagel also refused to provide complete information about possible sources of possible foreign income over the past five years, particularly indirect compensation he may have received through organizations or funds with which he has been affiliated. The Atlantic Council, which he chairs, is known to have accepted large donations from the Hariri family, which is active in Lebanese politics and supportive of the Hamas organization. 

After missing the deadline that Senators had imposed for disclosure, Hagel provided a list of foreign government and corporate donors to the Atlantic Council. He refused to provide additional information, saying he could not force other organizations to do the same. Democrats charged that Republicans were holding Hagel to an unprecedented standard; Republicans cited Democrats’ own demands that Henry Kissinger provide a list of his firm’s clients when he was nominated to the 9/11 commission, as well as the case of Hillary Clinton, who released a list of foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation.

It was Hagel’s refusal to come clean--and his evident attempts to evade transparency--that ultimately united the Republican caucus in the Senate behind a filibuster, including some members who had initially expressed strong reservations about using the tactic.

The resulting delay will provide the Senate with several more days in which to consider Hagel’s candidacy, and for the White House to consider other options. The very fact that Hagel’s nomination has proved so divisive, and has exposed so many weaknesses in the nominee, is itself an argument for withdrawal. In a time of rising threats and looming budget challenges, the Pentagon will not be served by a perception of weak leadership.

Any one of the many factors above should, by itself, have disqualified Hagel from even being considered for the post. But President Obama has thrown out the rules many times before in his quest to transform America. Hagel is, in a sense, the Obamacare of Cabinet nominations: a deeply problematic policy choice that may have the votes to pass but lacks broad public support and may ultimately cost far more than advertised.

The Republican filibuster may hold; it may not. But if even a few Democrats make the right choice--the kind of well-considered choice made by moderate Sen Susan Collins (R-ME), for example--then Hagel’s nomination will collapse on the merits. If they are honest with themselves, Democrats must admit that they would not even think about confirming Hagel except for the fact that Obama has staked his political capital on it.

The left’s attacks on Sen. Cruz, on conservative media, and on pro-Israel activists may serve the president’s political interests. He relishes opportunities to paint the opposition as intransigent. Yet the Hagel nomination is a good example of why the filibuster is necessary as a restraint on the majority, a way to help it correct its mistakes before they become irrevocable. Obama and his party have one last chance to do the right thing.


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