Hagel Struggles Through the Obvious Questions: The Surge, The Jews, Iran

I credit another reporter, from the Financial Times, for clueing me in on how poorly Chuck Hagel was handling key questions in his hearing. During an exchange on Iran, as he described the administration policy that was now his policy, Hagel referred to “containment.”

“Did he mean to say ‘containment?’” whispered the reporter. “Did he mean ‘prevention?’”

He did. Shortly therafter, Hagel was handed a note, and told the committee he needed to amend his prior answer. “The administration does not have a position on containment,” he said.

“The administration does have a position on containment,” added Sen. Carl Levin, helpfully. “It is against it.”

It was the most glaring stumble in Hagel’s morning of inquisition, but it wasn’t alone. There’s no reason to judge televised hearings as theater, but several times, Hagel was faced with questions that had been litigated in the press, and meandered through them awkwardly. He explained votes on Iran as prudent decisions from a different time, and place, then called the regime an “elected, legitimate government, whether we agree or not.” It was in line with his philosophy, but it was a finger-in-the-eye way to put it. When Sen. Roger Wicker (a decided “no” vote) asked Hagel about his “Jewish lobby” quote, which everybody was expecting, Hagel gave a slow, uhhh-soaked three-part answer about how he should have said “Israeli” instead of “Jewish,” said “influence” not “intimidate,” and never called anybody “stupid.”

That went worse than the buzziest story of the morning—the confrontaiton with John McCain. The Arizona senator, who started to break with Hagel during the 2006-2007 buildup to the Iraq surge, simply refused to let that issue go.

“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” said McCain.

“I would like to…” started Hagel.

“Are you going to answer the question?” asked McCain.

“It’s going to be the judgment of history,” said Hagel.

“History has made its judgment,” said McCain, “and you are on wrong side of it.”

Hagel had given countless interviews and speeches about the surge, some of them after it ended, answering the question of whether the extra troops were responsible for a 2007 drop-off in violence, or whether other factors were responsible. Instead, he referred to “1,200 dead Americans’ lives” as the factor in his opposition.