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Was Chuck Hagel “Just Plain Bad” in His Confirmation Hearing?

Chuck Hagel righteously defended his equal support for Palestinian and Israeli victims, in secretary of defense confirmation hearings, says Robert Naiman.

Apparently a number of Washington Pundits had a meeting and achieved consensus among themselves that Chuck Hagel’s performance in his confirmation hearing to be secretary of defense was bad.

Personally, I don’t think that we should defer to the Washington Pundits on this. These are the kind of people who assured us that invading Iraq would be a great idea. Now, I’m not saying that people who claimed that invading Iraq would be a great idea shouldn’t be allowed to publicly express their opinions relating to foreign and military policy. That would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment. That would be wrong. But if it were general journalistic policy to always identify them as supporters of the Iraq war whenever they talk about anything that relates to foreign policy or the military, the same way we put warning labels on hazardous chemicals, I wouldn’t see any legitimate objection to that.

Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post informs us that Hagel was “just plain bad,” although “it almost certainly won’t keep him from becoming the next man to lead the Pentagon.”

Let’s stop right there. Isn’t that a contradiction? If Hagel gets confirmed, doesn’t that mean that in the hearing, he did what he had to do? If he did what he had to do, was his performance “just plain bad”?

What was Hagel’s main task in the confirmation hearing?

Wasn’t Hagel’s main task to avoid saying anything that would give any Senator a reason or excuse to vote against his confirmation? In particular, wasn’t it to avoid saying anything that contradicts current administration policy or that might unnecessarily put the Democratic senators and reasonable Republican senators who are expected to vote for his confirmation – people like Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand – in a politically awkward position? Whatever one may think of Schumer and Gillibrand otherwise, they’re playing on the Hagel team now. Wasn’t it part of Hagel’s task to protect all the players on the Hagel team, by avoiding unnecessarily saying things or behaving in a way that would make their vote for his confirmation politically more difficult?

If Hagel is confirmed as secretary of defense, as people in Washington overwhelmingly expect, doesn’t that mean that he successfully completed his assigned task?

Wasn’t part of Hagel’s task to show that he will have no problem acting publicly as a loyal lieutenant to President Obama? Doesn’t one want from a loyal lieutenant that he stay focused on the assigned task, keeping his cool even as arrows rain down upon him?

Now let’s consider Cillizza’s main evidence that Hagel performed poorly.

“This exchange with his one-time friend John McCain over Iraq was typical of how poorly Hagel fared in the give and take of the day,” Cillizza writes.

There follows a video clip of the exchange between McCain and Hagel about the Iraq surge.

But if you watch The Washington Post’s video clip, here’s what you see. First, McCain gives a long, nasty rant about Hagel, full of insults. (Nice way to treat someone you once called “brother.”) Then, when Hagel tries to answer McCain’s question, McCain keeps interrupting him, talking over him and refusing to let him answer. Finally, Hagel is allowed to answer, but here The Washington Post video clip cuts off, so you don’t get to see what Hagel’s actual answer was. According to The Washington Post, apparently, Hagel’s actual answer to the question wasn’t part of the “exchange” between McCain and Hagel. The “exchange” was the part where McCain interrupted Hagel and wouldn’t let him answer.

What exactly was Hagel supposed to do differently during this “exchange”? Capitulate to McCain and agree with McCain’s insistence that he give a “yes or no” answer to the question of whether the Iraq surge “succeeded”? Or was he supposed to try to shout over McCain in order not to be interrupted? What would you have done, assuming that your primary goal was to get confirmed? Which choice by Hagel was consistent with the task of keeping a calm demeanor under fire?

Now, some people claim that Hagel looked bad because he walked back previous positions.

There are two separate issues to understand here.

The first is understanding what any cabinet nominee would have to do if challenged on a discrepancy between a past statement about policy and the administration’s current position. The nominee would have exactly one choice, which is to walk to the current administration policy. Every serious hierarchical organization in the world is like this: You join the team, you have to publicly defend the team line. In private, you’re a member of the advisory committee, and you argue for your views. But in public, you’re true to your school.

As an illustration that this is the normal state of the world: I was once interviewed for a job as a union organizer. During my interview, I was asked a question about my opinion on prison expansion. This union represented prison guards, among many other kinds of workers, and they had a position in support of prison expansion. I said: I understand why you have this position. Personally I am opposed to prison expansion, and if you hire me, I would prefer not to have anything to do with that, but in any event, if you hire me, I won’t do anything publicly that contradicts the union’s line. I got the job. I wasn’t going to be working with prison guards. They just needed to know that as a union employee, I wasn’t going to publicly contradict the union’s line. That’s the way it works in a private interview. If it had been a public interview, I would have had to say something different.

This especially stuck out in Hagel’s case because some Republicans decided to make a huge spectacle of it. Senator Kerry and Senator Clinton also had a record of statements differing from the policies of the administration when they joined it; they also had to walk to the administration’s positions. The difference was that in those cases no one made a huge fuss about it. No one looks particularly elegant when they are making this walk.

The second issue to understand is the distinction between matters of principle and rhetorical flourishes.

Was Hagel’s task to give a spirited and passionate defense of his past colorful and blunt descriptions of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians or of the behavior of some Washington lobbyists who agitate to bring US policy into compliance with the preferences of Benjamin Netanyahu?

When Senator Lee asked Hagel whether he stood by his past characterization of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, in which he used the colorful and blunt phrase, “keep Palestinians caged up like animals,” was Hagel supposed to double down? Should he have said, “Well, Senator, some would say the analogy was unfair to people who keep animals in cages. I mean, you wouldn’t let a caged animal die at a military checkpoint for want of medical care.”

That would no doubt have been psychologically and emotionally satisfying to many viewers.

Would it have helped or hurt Hagel in the main task of getting confirmed as Secretary of Defense?

Now, some people who weren’t paying close attention may have gotten the impression that when Hagel walked back rhetorical flourishes, he walked back issues of principle.

Indeed, in an editorial calling for Hagel’s confirmation by the Senate, The New York Times wrote that Hagel allowed himself to “back off on some positions, like his concern for Palestinians.” Perhaps the Times wrote this because Hagel walked back the “keep Palestinians caged up like animals” quote.

A transcript of the hearing is here. I challenge anyone to show in the transcript where Hagel “backed off on his concern for Palestinians,” if we distinguish, as all pragmatic people must (and that’s the only kind of opinion we should take seriously in this case), between walking back rhetoric and walking back substance.

Indeed, consider the following exchange between Senator Lee and Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel on the very subject of sympathy for the Palestinians:

SENATOR MIKE LEE (R-Utah): On April 12th, 2002, there was a Palestinian terrorist who detonated a bomb in downtown Jerusalem, killing six Israelis and wounding, I believe, about a hundred others. On that day, while you were still serving in the US Senate, you gave a speech on the Senate floor. You made a couple of comments that I’d like to discuss with you and ask you a little bit about.

In one segment of the speech, you said: We understand Israel’s right to defend ourself – itself. We’re committed to that. We’ve helped Israel defend that right. We will continue to do so. But it should not be at the expense of the Palestinian people, innocent Palestinian people and innocent Israelis who are paying a high price.

Some who have read that have reacted with concern that this may be indicative of a feeling on your part that there might be some moral equivalency between, on the one hand, Israel’s exercise of its right to defend itself and, on the other hand, Palestinian terrorism. Do you believe that there is a moral equivalency between these two things?

CHUCK HAGEL: No, absolutely not, Senator.

SENATOR LEE: Do you understand how others might read this statement in such a way that could leave them with that impression?

MR. HAGEL: I do.

SENATOR LEE: And you – how do you respond to it? In other words, do Palestinians – let’s say those Palestinians who have engaged in acts of terrorism, perhaps in retaliation against Israel for Israel defending itself, do they have a legitimate gripe?

MR. HAGEL: Well, terrorism can never be justified under any circumstances. And . . .

SENATOR LEE: But is their grievance legitimate?

MR. HAGEL: The Palestinians?

SENATOR LEE: Yeah, the Palestinians who decide to strap a bomb onto themselves and detonate it or otherwise engage in acts of terror. Do they have a legitimate grievance that they’re expressing?

MR. HAGEL: Well, they have grievances. A lot of people have grievances, but . . .

SENATOR LEE: Are those grievances legitimate?

MR. HAGEL: . . . but not a justification for terrorism and killing innocent people. Never.

SENATOR LEE: Are they on par with the grievances that innocent Israelis have when they become the victims of violent acts?

MR. HAGEL: I don’t think you can judge, whether it’s Israelis or Palestinians or anybody in the world, in separating innocent victims of terrorism.

SENATOR LEE: Well, I think you can in some circumstances, can’t you? I mean –

MR. HAGEL: Not victims.

SENATOR LEE: For heaven’s sakes, though – OK, maybe not victims, but can’t you, and indeed, must you not judge when it comes to one group of people who may at least be willing to recognize the other group of people’s right to exist?

MR. HAGEL: Absolutely. In fact, I’m clearly on the record on that point, on – in fact, in 2006 there was the anti-Palestinian terrorist act that I voted for, and there were a number of other resolutions, acts, votes, speeches I’ve made. In my book I have said unequivocally, Hezbollah, Hamas, specifically, they must renounce terrorism, and first they must accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland, respect the borders, protect the borders. Absolutely I made that very clear.


What happened in this exchange? In clarifying that terrorism can never be justified, Hagel said exactly what he had to say. But in defending the principle that you can’t separate innocent Israeli and Palestinian victims, Hagel didn’t give an inch. In fact, it was Senator Lee who had to give ground, conceding that in considering victims, one cannot morally distinguish between Israelis and Palestinians.

And this is about as close as you can come to a pure test of character in Washington. Because everyone knows that there is absolutely zero political price to be paid in Washington for throwing the Palestinians under the bus. If someone presses you to throw the Palestinians under the bus, you know that political expediency says: Go ahead. There’s no price to be paid for this. There’s no one who’d like to punish you for it politically who has the capacity to do so.

There is exactly one reason and one reason only not to throw the Palestinians under the bus in Washington, and that is that throwing the Palestinians under the bus is not the act of a righteous man. And that’s why Chuck Hagel didn’t do it.

Now tell me again how Hagel flubbed his hearing. I’m thinking that maybe some of the people saying this don’t follow these issues very closely.

If you agree with The New York Times that the Senate should move quickly to confirm Senator Hagel, you can raise your voice here.

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