At Hagel hearing, Congress disappoints again with nitpicking by senators

February 5, 2013

There were several obvious answers on Thursday when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel to “name one person, in your opinion, who is intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate” during the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing.

One answer could have been “the two of us”: Graham, for example, by asking such a silly gotcha question, and Hagel for not standing up for his past words that reflect the belief of many who have watched the Senate over the years.

That lobby would include the most prominent of the pro-Israeli lobbies, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which immodestly acknowledges its own power over Congress, boldly claiming on its e-mails that it is “Consistently ranked as the most influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill.”

What was most disappointing about Hagel’s lackluster performance was his backing away from his previously stated, utterly rational views on many subjects, often in the face of hectoring from fellow Republicans who were clearly playing to conservative constituents.

When Graham asked Hagel to “name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby,” the answer should have been “a good part of today’s eight-hour hearing.”

Israel and some of Hagel’s past remarks were the most discussed issue as the committee supposedly tried to determine the qualifications of the former Nebraska senator and how he might as secretary of the Department of Defense deal with Pentagon problems.

There was also an interesting pattern throughout the hearing as different Republicans raised elements of past Hagel statements dealing with Israel.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) focused on a 2002 Hagel floor statement dealing with Palestinian terrorist bombings in Jerusalem and Israel’s military responses. More than 10 years ago Hagel had 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.”

Lee then said, “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?”

Hagel responded, “No, absolutely not.” Lee went on to lecture him “how others might read this statement in such a way that could leave them with that impression.” Was Lee saying that making any statement that “some” may interpret as not totally supporting all Israeli actions could disqualify Hagel?

Two Republicans brought up Hagel’s 2006 speech on the Senate floor about Israel’s 34-day military response to an attack by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. Acknowledging that Hezbollah started the fighting, Hagel said: “How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon, is going to enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East? The sickening slaughter on both sides must end, and it must end now. President Bush must call for an immediate cease-fire. This madness must stop.”

Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) selectively shortened Hagel’s remarks, saying, “You referred to Israel’s military campaign against the terrorist group Hezbollah as a ‘sickening slaughter.’ . . . Do you think a sickening slaughter would constitute a war crime?” Hagel responded, “No. It depends on — they were attacked. It depends on many factors. If Israel was defending itself, there was slaughter going on, on both sides.”

Hours later, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) used the same speech to ask Hagel again to explain why he said Israel’s response was a “sickening slaughter” and why he accused Israel of “the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon.”

Hagel noted he had already been asked about those quotes and pointed out “it was in the larger context of a speech I made about what was going on, the 30-some days of war going on.” But he twice said he regretted the language, allowing Vitter to label him a “flip-flopper.”

What has all this got to do with Hagel being Defense secretary? As others have pointed out, few senators raised the more serious issues that would immediately confront Hagel should he be confirmed, as he probably will be.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panettta, appearing on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, put it concisely: “What disappointed me is that they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of Defense is confronting today? What about the war in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequestering and what an impact it’s going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber attacks?”

I would add one that will come up the first time Hagel as secretary faces the military in a town-hall meeting: What does he expect to be done about military pay, benefits, retirement and health care?

Thursday’s hearing was a perfect illustration of why the public has such a low opinion of Congress and why Americans should be concerned that their legislative branch often seems no longer to be playing a serious role in government.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
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