The effort to rehabilitate a witness whose credibility and competence has been severely damaged is never easy. If the witness changes his story, he looks like a liar. If he sticks with problematic statements, he turns off those who sit in judgment. What is true in a courtroom with a jury is certainly the case with Chuck Hagel and the U.S. Senate.
The effort to shore up support and tamp down on objections in the Senate to his nomination as defense secretary isn’t going so well. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had shockingly little impact on their colleagues; those who were opposed to Hagel still are, and those undecided remain quiet. Hagel’s public polling is poor.
You can image the waves of panic cresting at the White House. What next? Would they go so far as to plead with Jewish groups (overwhelmingly liberal) to come in for a meeting to soothe their feathers and pry out some words of praise for Hagel? (That would be quite funny — to call in a posse of Jewish leaders — considering Hagel’s claim that his colleagues have been intimidated by the “Jewish lobby.”) Given how anxious the organizational leaders have been to maintain good relations with the White House (Miss a group meeting or an in-the-know conference call? Perish the thought of losing precious “access”!), the Hagel handlers might get a few of them to cough up a few nice words. (Then again, they are just as likely to leak word of the meeting and embarrass the White House.)
The simple fact remains that, whether it is Schumer or a group of Jewish leaders anxious to show what good sports they are, none of these people can solve the Hagel problem. He has three problems: his words, his record and his executive abilities.
I spoke yesterday evening with Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They made the case that Hagel’s slurs against American Jews were public and thus a public acknowledgement and apology are needed. Only then can the American people and the Senate evaluate his veracity and his nomination.
Rabbi Hier said, “We’ve noted Senator Hagel met with Senator Schumer and we noted the remarks from former secretary of State Colin Powell. … These were private assurances. But Hagel made public comments. You can’t clear them up with private assurances in private Senate offices.” Rabbi Cooper concurred: “He needs to clear it up publically. It needs to be done in front of the American people.”
Hier continued, “Former secretary of State Colin Powell referred to the ‘Israel Lobby’ and the ‘Jewish Lobby.’ With all due respect, the most offensive thing he said was, ‘I am not the Senator for Israel. I am the Senator for the United States.’ That is deeply offensive to his colleagues.” Hier argued that, in essence, Hagel was saying “Only he is for America, ‘not like you other guys’.” Rabbi Cooper referred to the noxious 2010 comments from Egyptian President Mahmoud Morsi, which the White House felt compelled to condemn: “Words matter. Morsi’s words matter. Hagel’s words matter.”
Aside from Hagel’s record of comments, Hier pointed to another issue: “What is the signal [from the Hagel nomination] to the mullahs? You then have the policy.” The president has said sanctions will remain in place until Iran gives up its nuclear weapons program. But, Hier asked, “Is Hagel capable of delivering that message to the mullahs?”
Indeed, Hagel’s long and consistent record of votes suggests that he hasn’t understood the funding needs of the military, the urgency of acting against and isolating Iran or the need to defend Israel diplomatically and rhetorically. HIs lack of understanding that our own security is tied to Israel’s and that we face common foes is, to put it mildly, troubling. When it comes to U.S. defense posture, he has sounded more like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) than the man who could be in charge of our nuclear arsenal. Nuclear deterrence expert Rebeccah Heinrichs wrote:
Last May, the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission released a bombshell of a report. The nuclear disarmament group called for draconian cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Many defense experts, including the current head of Strategic Command, General C. Robert Kehler, flat-out disagreed with that report. So why give it another thought? Because President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, former Senator Chuck Hagel, is a co-author. . . .
[T]he premises and conclusions in the Global Zero report provide ample information to dig deeper into how Chuck Hagel would advise the president regarding America’s nuclear weapons.
Hagel insists the Pentagon budget is “bloated”; yet the Joint Chiefs testified this week, “We are on the brink of creating a hollow force due to an unprecedented convergence of budget conditions and legislation that could require the Department to retain more forces than requested while underfunding that force’s readiness.”
In short, it is not clear (whether the subject is Iran sanctions, nuclear deterrence, defense spending, or other critical issues) that Hagel understands national security needs or strategy.
So to recap: There are Hagel’s words, yet to be publicly acknowledged and retracted. There is his record that is at the fringes of the Senate on matters such as Israel, Iran and the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Then there is Hagel as a manager, leader and executive.
As to the last, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) recently said that former staffers are coming forward with concerns about Hagel’s “temperament.” Although tight-lipped about the particulars, officials in two Senate Republican offices insist that Corker was not vamping and there are ex-staffers with concerns about Hagel’s conduct and how his Senate office was run. That generic concern, however, isn’t going to fly. If there is substance to these, evidence will need to come forward. However, this may be the most critical aspect of the hearing simply because the rest of Hagel’s record is so well known.
The White House has been testy on the temperament subject, but the topic is certainly fair game for a nominee who would oversee a department with billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of employees. One senator addressed the subject this way: “I think that there are some people on this committee who are genuinely struggling with trying to get a sense of whether this person’s temperament or his veracity is such that it would justify placing him in such a sensitive position.” That was Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in 2005 at the John Bolton hearing. He was right.
Hagel is not going to get past the Armed Services Committee, let alone the entire Senate, without an exhaustive look at all parts of his record — his words, his votes, his views, his judgment and his conduct with subordinates. No private chats will avoid that.