The Hagel Follies: 'Even My Low Expectations Went Unmet'

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For decades Winslow Wheeler was an influential congressional staffer on matters of budget, strategy, and policy involving the military. Back in 2008 I mentioned the excellent book he had overseen, America's Defense Meltdown.

This morning, on Time's Battleland site, he convincingly explains why yesterday's Chuck Hagel hearing should be considered "profoundly depressing" all around. Heart of the argument, with which I agree:

Unlike most effective politicians who are always clever at saying nothing or changing positions, [Hagel] was so inarticulate at doing so that it is also hard to understand how he ever could have been elected twice to the Senate from Nebraska.

As fumbling and apologetic as Hagel's answers were to the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, even my low expectations for the performance of the senators on that committee went unmet.

A few more details after the jump. Not a great day for anyone.

More from Wheeler:

Several Democrats seem mostly interested in protecting themselves from being seen as too cozy with Hagel because of his previous statements about Israel, its issues and its lobby (eg. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.), and others seemed mostly concerned about pork (eg. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.). Only moderate Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) seemed to be more worried about Hagel's declining fate on the committee than feathering his own political nest.

However, even the worst of the Democrats strode as giants compared to the Republicans, who were all relentless in their cheap shots to justify their predetermined hostility to Hagel.

Particularly offensive was Senator John McCain's (R-Ariz.) insistence that the witness pay homage to McCain's dogma on the sanctity of the "surge" as rescuing America from ignominy in Iraq (which it did not).

Senator Jim Inhofe's (R-Okla.) bumbling small-mindedness was a gruesome introduction of himself to the nation as the leading (most senior) Republican on the armed services committee. If this is the best the Republicans can do to explain themselves to the country on national-security issues, their domicile in America's political wilderness has a long way to go before it is over.

Update: Michael Cohen makes a similar bleak case in The Guardian, under the descriptive headline "A discredit to all concerned." Also see Matthew Duss in The American Prospect, "The Senate-Hearing Circus Is in Session." And Fred Kaplan in Slate, who in particular explains what was wrong about John McCain's browbeating Hagel about "the surge." And John Judis in The New Republic, who is particularly tough on new Senator Ted Cruz of Texas:

In his closing round of questions, Cruz reverted to a time-honored rightwing tactic of guilt by association.... Those old enough to remember, or who are familiar with, the history, will recognize Cruz's line of attack as classic McCarthy tactics. Cruz isn't out to prove Hagel is a communist; only that he has "a greater antagonism toward Israel than any other member of this body." 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.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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