The Scene at the Hagel Hearing (Updating)

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5:52 pm.  The Senate Armed Service Committee hearings on Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination to serve as the next Secretary of Defense were grueling and just ended. 

Hagel was rarely humorous and basically plodded through cautiously, seriously, professorially taking a lot of hits from mostly GOP critics on the Committee.  The Dem members, for the most part, seemed to want statements on the record that would allow them to justify a yes vote in support of Hagel.  Gillibrand wanted to hear about protections for LGBT rights and women.  Shaheen wanted to protect NH shipyards.  Senator Donnelly wanted commitment to support the National Guard.  Mark Udall wanted specific statements of support for Israel -- and statements that the military option was on the table with regard to Iran.

I'll reflect on the day later as I need to get to MSNBC's studio -- but I have to note that Senators Jeff Sessions, Kelly Ayotte, and Roy Blunt -- despite obvious concerns and potential opposition to Hagel did it with class and civility.  They knew their stuff.  They were Hagel's toughest, most serious critics -- and I don't think Hagel won them over.

Senators Cruz, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Inhofe seemed to want to have a public fight and wanted to do all they could to force Hagel into confessions of past sins.  Cruz oddly had bad information suggesting that Chas Freeman and Hagel were intimately connected and travel buddies.  Bad staff work on that front.

While many will make much of the exchange with McCain, Hagel won I think -- in the sense that he reminded Americans that their are multiple costs associated with military action and in determining whether the Iraq surge was a success, Hagel reminded that 1,200 Americans died during that action and thousands more were injured. 

Bottom line is that I think Hagel -- who has the rough edge and war-forged voice of a real soldier -- met expectations but did not really beat them.  Kissengerian humor injected into discussions of war and peace would have helped a lot.  Nonetheless, I expect that all of those inclined to support Hagel yesterday will stay where they are -- and those predisposed against him will remain where they are.

I think that there are a good number more Senators willing to confirm than not -- and those numbers were not moved or altered by today's performance.

4:54 pm. 
Hagel tells Senator Manchin that he'll always be honest with Congress; always give them what's going on straight.  That was an impressive moment.

Manchin concludes reflecting on an old West Virginia saying that "If you can't change you mind, you can't change anything." Hagel chuckled.Senator Joe Manchin starts out the next round of questions saying that he wants to apologize for some of the tone and demeanor shown by some others on the Armed Services Committee.  Manchin asks Hagel how he got into Vietnam -- and then Hagel smartly noted that he knew Manchin tried repeatedly to enlist but was blocked because of knee problems.  Good move by Hagel.

Hagel now speaking about his early military enlistment process -- and it's always good TV to listen to a hero of military service talk about what he did to serve the nation in wartime.  Many vets will appreciate Hagel's story.

LOL.  Finally some humor!!  Hagel acknowledges that many leading Israelis have endorsed his candidacy as Secretary of Defense.  Manchin said apparently other countries want him -- and Hagel says, "Yes, it seems Iran wants me," with a chuckle.  Well handled.  This hearing could have used more humor.

4:39 pm 
Senator Inhofe just said that he is stating his own thoughts, not those of any other interests.  Hallelujah.  Good for a US Senator to get to that frame.  Inhofe says he believes Egyptian President Morsi is an enemy -- and Egypt's military is a friend.  Interesting and pretty binary perspective. 

Senator Inhofe also asked Hagel whether he personally thought Inhofe's questions about the Iranian government's alleged enthusiasm for Hagel was disrespectful.  Hagel said no and that he thought it was a legitimate question. 

I disagree.  I think that the question was tantamount to asking Hagel if he was a traitor -- so count me as one who thought that the question was out of line -- and questioned the core patriotism of Chuck Hagel.

So with all due respect to Senator Inhofe, I do think he should reconsider his line of attack on that.  It is disrespectful to ask someone like Hagel whether they are American patriots or are instead dupes representing foreign countries -- whether Israel or Iran or China or the Brits or Japan.

4:34 pm. 
Senator Shaheen draws Hagel to reiterate his statement of support for Israel's security.  This is interesting as a core part of Shaheen's constituency in New Hampshire are Arab-Americans, mostly Lebanon-descendedI liked her response because it showed as well that she does not make a false choice between those with a strong interest in Israel and those with a strong interest in other parts of the Middle East.

4:27 pm.  Senator Jeanne Shaheen, for whom I have a lot of time, finally sort of gets something many other US Senators on the Armed Services Committee don't get.  She realizes Hagel is likely to be confirmed and that he will have tons of influence on which US military assets are shuttered and which are reinforced.  Shaheen just got Hagel's commitment to keep some New Hampshire military assets, particularly shipyards, bolstered and in good financial health.  Smart.  Not sure the Texas delegation is going to be all that welcome by those who seem themselves part of the Chuck Hagel franchise at the Pentagon -- though I'm fairly sure that Hagel will not bear any ill will towards Senators Cruz, Inhofe, and Cornyn and won't penalize their military assets when real austerity measures hit the DoD budget.

But those who see themselves as Hagelites?  Not so sure, Texas and Oklahoma will make much headway with them.

4:11 pm.
Senator Tim Kaine is demonstrating a facility with national security issues that shows he knows something more about all of this than the notes his staff hands him. I wish a good number of the other Senators on the United States Armed Services Committee knew more about armed services, foreign policy and national security policy challenges facing the country. Some are detail savvy -- but not enough of them.
 
This was a strange exchange between Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Chuck Hagel earlier today in the hearings.  Senator Graham pounds Hagel to name "one dumb thing" that the US Congress did as a result of what Hagel had inaptly termed "the Jewish lobby" in an interview with Aaron David Miller.

The real fact is Hagel never said that Congress had done something stupid.  He actually said that the Lobby had done stupid things that had ultimately undermined the interests of Israel. 

Here is a post I did about this earlier:

2:05 pm.  Interesting factoid.  Senator Lindsey Graham hammered Chuck Hagel to give him one instance of when the Congress had done something stupid in response to the Israel, or as Hagel said, Jewish Lobby.  The fact is that Hagel, in the interview with Aaron David Miller, never said Congress had done anything stupid as a result of the lobby. 

What Hagel really said is that the lobby does some 'dumb things' that are not in the interest of Israel.  Ambassador and then Israel Foreign Ministry Spokesman once told a visiting group that AIPAC, like some other diaspora groups, sometimes hugs so much that it hurts. 

That aside, here is exactly what Hagel said:

"The political reality is that you intimidate, not you -- that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. Again, I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don't think it's in the interest of Israel. I just don't think it's smart for Israel. Now, everyone has a right to lobby; that's as it should be. Come see your senator, your congressman, and if you can get the guy to sign your letter, great, wonderful. But as I reminded somebody not too long ago, in fact it was a group I was speaking to in New York, and we got into kind of an interesting give and take on Iran. A couple of these guys said we should just attack Iran. And I said, 'Well, that's an interesting thought; we're doing so well in Iraq.' And I said it would really help Israel. And this guy kept pushing and pushing. And he alluded to the fact that maybe I wasn't supporting Israel enough or something. And I just said let me clear something up here, in case there is any doubt. I said, 'I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator.' I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States -- not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that. Now I know most senators don't talk like I do.
3:55 pm  Senator Mike Lee is trying to trip Hagel up on Israel-Palestine security issues, but it seems to me that Lee started off oddly, defining Israel as potentially America's most important ally globally.  What happened to the UK, to Japan, to other states that actually throw a great deal of their own resources into large geostrategic challenges facing the United States.  Israel is important no doubt -- but more important than these two other vital relationships?

2:05 pm. 
Interesting factoid.  Senator Lindsey Graham hammered Chuck Hagel to give him one instance of when the Congress had done something stupid in response to the Israel, or as Hagel said, Jewish Lobby.  The fact is that Hagel, in the interview with Aaron David Miller, never said Congress had done anything stupid as a result of the lobby. 

What Hagel really said is that the lobby does some 'dumb things' that are not in the interest of Israel.  Ambassador and then Israel Foreign Ministry Spokesman once told a visiting group that AIPAC, like some other diaspora groups, sometimes hugs so much that it hurts. 

That aside, here is exactly what Hagel said:

"The political reality is that you intimidate, not you -- that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. Again, I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don't think it's in the interest of Israel. I just don't think it's smart for Israel. Now, everyone has a right to lobby; that's as it should be. Come see your senator, your congressman, and if you can get the guy to sign your letter, great, wonderful. But as I reminded somebody not too long ago, in fact it was a group I was speaking to in New York, and we got into kind of an interesting give and take on Iran. A couple of these guys said we should just attack Iran. And I said, 'Well, that's an interesting thought; we're doing so well in Iraq.' And I said it would really help Israel. And this guy kept pushing and pushing. And he alluded to the fact that maybe I wasn't supporting Israel enough or something. And I just said let me clear something up here, in case there is any doubt. I said, 'I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator.' I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States -- not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that. Now I know most senators don't talk like I do.

1:57 pm.
  In response to Senator Donnelly from Indiana, Chuck Hagel says that this is the time in which we are debating what the core military mission of the nation will be. He said that this is a time of 'choices and priorities'.  Hagel went on to say that the entire universe of what our responsibilities will be and how we will be tasked with carrying out those missions in defense of the security of the United States is what he and the Committee were discussing today. Hagel says that the authorizing role of the committees in Congress will have substantial sway in the direction of America's national security mission.

Hagel said that he would be strongly supportive of the National Guard, in further equipping them and assuring resources there for those in reserve to back up active global US military missions.

1:45 pm
.  Senator Roy Blunt opens with a generous and civil tone -- admitting that much of what he might have wanted to discuss about Israel and unilateral sanctions towards Iran, which he helped marshal forward and draft in the House of Representatives, had been exhausted in earlier discussion -- but then Blunt asked a smart question about the size, capabilities, and battle readiness of America's military forces.

Blunt cited a Wall Street Journal article saying that US forces just aren't where they should be. Hagel responded that we have work to do -- but the fact is, as Hagel said, "we have been at war for 12 years now."  Hagel and Blunt seemed to agree that we need to be smart about the investments in the future of the military forces, so that the US does not lose its edge in military capacity.

Hagel has also said that we will have to work to maintain the defense industrial base.  He said that the uncertainties of the sequester have created a great deal of stress and uncertainty in the system about the defense systems acquisition process -- and we need to get beyond that uncertainty.  Fair point.

1:30 pm. 
Senator Lindsey Graham once participated in a great evening at the Motion Picture Association in which his favorite film, Seven Days in May, was screened.  It was an outstanding event -- and the Senator articulated that the film reminded him of the dangers of "military demagoguery." The film focused on the rise of the military and the threat it posed to civilian leadership in the White House. 

It's interesting that Graham is posing questions (and seeming to answer them for Hagel) that express Graham's support for a martial posture in military affairs -- rather than allowing discussion of restraint.  Hagel seemed to do a good job of responding to a number of Senator Graham's concerns, agreeing with him on the characterization of Iran as a terrorist state.  I don't think Graham's concerns that Hagel did not jump on the bandwagon and support a letter co-signed by 96 other Senators about Israel's security did not come off well.  It's interesting to note, just in contrast, that Senators Cornyn, Cruz, and Inhofe didn't jump on the bandwagon of support for John Kerry's confirmation either. 

More on this issue of letter-signing later.

1:21 pm.
 
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand getting Hagel to commit to stronger leadership in looking after women serving in the military forces reflecting on the reports of abuse and violence, as well as rapes, toward women.  She asked him about Israel, about Iran, about gays -- and got him on the record committing to strong support of Israel's security and a commitment to keep all options open on Iran.  He said he would institute a zero tolerance policy on violence towards women.

Previously, Senator Joe Manchin praised Hagel's independence -- of saying that he didn't determine his votes by the votes of others, and Manchin embraced that -- saying he was often in the same position.

One of the views that Senator Manchin holds that I hope gets more air time eventually is that despite the increase in military spending over time, the number of men and women in uniform has mostly stayed flat.  The implication is that much of the increases in defense spending have gone to accounts that haven't increased the muscle and structure of the actual military -- but have increased the amount of resources going to private contractors.  Expect to hear more about this subject as we move past the Hagel hearings to real discussions of what the future of defense spending will look like.

12:54 pm. 
Now watching the hearings from MSNBC studio.  Senator Ayotte is challenging Hagel on perceived discrepancies between the much-discussed Global Zero report and some of his statements in the hearing.  She was civil, but pointed and really wants Hagel to defend the current structure of America's nuclear deterrent.  The problem I have with this line of questioning is that Ayotte and Hagel could create a genuine learning moment by thinking through the unthinkables about the parts of the nuclear deterrent that will eventually become anachronistic.  For me, manned bombers are part of that withering triad.

12:04 pm. 
Senator Mark Udall asks Hagel to clarify his position on LGBT rights, and Hagel makes clear his strong support for LGBT rights, consistent with current law.

I am now rushing out to appear on Andrea Mitchell's MSNBC show Mitchell Reports. I will post updates as I can. 

11:52 am. Senator Saxby Chambliss just offered Chuck Hagel his congratulations on his nomination and expressed strong feelings of friendship for Hagel. But now he has asked Hagel to drill down into Iran issues -- and quoted from Hagel's book in which the defense secretary nominee said that given that we stumbled through faulty intel into a mistaken war with Iraq, we needed to be ever more careful in our positioning and posturing towards Iran. Chambliss asks Hagel why we should 'dialogue' with a terrorist state like Iran and asks him why Hagel did not vote to support designating Iran's IRGC as a terrorist organization.

Hagel responds first on the Revolutionary Guard issue. Hagel reminds Chambliss that there were 22 US Senators against this designation. Hagel references former Senator Jim Webb who articulated during the IRGC debate that the US had never designated a part of a legitimate, sovereign government a terrorist organization.

Webb's view was that voting to pass was tantamount to giving the President of the United States authority to go to war with Iran, without coming back to Congress for its consent and approval. Hagel believed that we were already in two wars at the time and was not ready to give easy consent to the White House to engage in a third war without the advice and consent of the Senate. Notes that then Senators Lugar and Biden -- Republican and Democrat -- both voted against the IRGC terrorist organization legislation.

Hagel also believes that President Obama has gone as far as he should probably go publicly in defining the 'red lines' that matter in consideration of a potential military strike against Iran. Hagel says that Obama has "said he has Israel's back."

Hagel said that Iran is probably as great a threat as the US has today -- but also says that North Korea is 'beyond a threat' as a nuclear power, and that Pakistan remains a troubling and complex problem.

Hagel says that the best way to deal with Iran is to try every possible initiative -- says engagement is what great powers do -- before considering a new war. War should be last resort. Hagel says engagement is not appeasement.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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