The Hagel hearing, Part One (Sen. McCain takes Hagel to the woodshed)

The hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination are under way. Former Senator Sam Nunn is droning on with a 99 percent content free, generic endorsement of Hagel, his pal. Nunn isn’t going anywhere near the controversial issues raised by Hagel’s nomination, such as Israel and Iran. A wise move.

Now it’s time to hear from Senator Foghorn himself, John Warner. He will likely make Nunn’s platitudinous statement sound like a PhD thesis.

Warner is touting Hagel’s statement. It will be so good, he assures us, that Warner doesn’t need to add much. But that’s not stopping him, as he rambles on about the old days of the Senate Armed Services Committee, dropping as many names as humanly possible. How embarrassing.

Now it’s Hagel’s turn. If confirmed, he tells us, he will always do his best. How nice.

Now he’s talking about his family. How nice.

He tells the Committee how honest he’s been and how hard he worked as a Senator. But the folks I know who worked in the Senate during the Hagel years found him to be a grandstander who was seldom to be found when the real work of the Senate was being done.

Hagel tells us that no one of his votes or statements define him. He’s probably setting the table to walk back his misguided and obnoxious positions and statements. A wise move.

On Iran, Hagel says he’s committed to stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He claims, falsely, that his position has always been in favor of keeping all options on the table.

On Israel, Hagel is brief. He says he supports Israel maintaining military superiority in the Middle East, and always has. Let’s hope the Republicans on the Committee are prepared to remind Hagel of his past statements on Iran and Israel.

Chairman Levin lays out the plan for the day. There will be two rounds of questions. The first will last until mid-afternoon. The goal is to finish the hearing today, no matter how long it takes.

Levin asks Hagel whether he shares Obama’s view of the importance of sanctions against Iran and if so, how he reconciles this position with his past statements that Iran shouldn’t be isolated. Hagel says that when he voted against sanctions, “we were in a different place” with Iran. Hagel doesn’t address his past statements about the importance of not isolating Iran and Levin doesn’t follow up by asking Hagel to explain specific votes.

This exchange appears to be a case of pre-arranged softball. It will be up to the Republican members to play hardball.

Senator Inhofe cites five specific Hagel votes on matters relating to Iran, Libya, Syria, and Israel in which Hagel was one of few Senators to take a “soft” line. Hagel admits to all of the votes, as he must, including voting against designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. The table is set for inquiring about each vote. Hagel shows an eagerness to explain. He’s obviously prepared to do so.

Inhofe refers to four questions asked by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post — e.g. have we miscalculated about the Muslim Brotherhood. He asks for Hagel to answer them in writing. It would have been interesting to hear Hagel answer them live because they might have taken him off of his talking points.

Inhofe asks why the Iranian foreign ministry strongly supports Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense. Hagel says he has no idea. The rest of us do.

Sen. Jack Reed gives Hagel the opportunity to explain the pro-Iran votes Inhofe cited. Hagel says he doesn’t recall them specifically. Instead, he cites other votes such as one condemning anti-Semitism in Russia. I guess he wasn’t as well prepared to talk about his obnoxious votes as I thought.

For the first time, Hagel seems to be struggling, and this in response to a softball question from a friendly Senator.

Hagel says he’s always said he’s a supporter of Israel and sometimes has said he’s a strong supporter. It would have been more persuasive if he could say he’s always said he’s a strong supporter of Israel.

Hagel cites his support for keeping the USO site in Haifa open. Wasn’t this the one where Hagel said “let the Jews pay for it”?

Now it’s John McCain’s turn. He begins with Hagel’s opposition to the surge in Iraq. He cites Hagel’s statements and suggests they are bizarre. McCain says that even when it became clear that the surge was succeeding, Hagel continued to rip it. Does Hagel think he was right, McCain wants to know.

Hagel tries to duck the question, raising McCain’s ire. “Were you right or wrong?” McCain demands. Hagel won’t answer. He will “defer that judgment to history.”

Hagel tries to redirect the discussion to the decision to go to war in Iraq. McCain suggests that he can’t vote to confirm Hagel unless he will answer McCain’s question about the surge.

McCain asks Hagel whether the U.S. should do more in Syria. Again, Hagel won’t answer. “How many more have to die before he would support arming the opposition and establishing a no fly zone?” Again, no answer.

McCain presses Hagel about his opposition to Obama’s surge in Afghanistan. Hagel finally answers a McCain question. Yes, he disagreed with Obama. So Hagel was to the left of Obama on this issue. That’s one of the frightening things about this nomination.

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