In the Chuck Hagel confirmation battle, the right has demonstrated remarkable unity. If the vote on Hagel were taken today, there likely would be 35 to 40 Republican “no” votes, perhaps more. Diverse interests (support for Israel, defense of defense spending), carried by an array of entities (Americans for a Strong Defense, The American Future Fund, Emergency Committee for Israel, Christians United for Israel, Republican Jewish Coalition) and representing different segments of the party (Christian Zionists, hawks), have come together in a remarkably short period of time. The Republican National Committee has stepped up as well, providing data on Hagel’s record.
Usually in these fights, the left drives the message, greatly aided by the liberal media. We have seen in Robert Bork and Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings how the left gathers an array of organizations. In this case, however, the president’s team grossly underestimated the opposition. Perhaps the White House did not imagine that a band of right-leaning groups could emerge so swiftly and provide so much fodder for senators opposed to the Hagel nomination.
The president made a content-less speech introducing the nominee as an injured vet. Beyond that, the Hagel handlers have been perpetually on the defensive. As Paul Bedard reported, citing Senate Democratic sources, “some members are complaining that President Obama has yet to explain to them why he picked the gruff Nebraska Republican and why the White House hasn’t supplied them with extensive talking points to use to support him.” Bedard quotes a key Dem aide: “All he has to do is tell us why he picked him, and he hasn’t done that. It makes it hard to fight for Hagel.” Perhaps beyond his Vietnam status, there isn’t much of a positive case to be made.
Some of these anti-Hagel groups are targeting red-state senators whose vote for Hagel will energize evangelicals to oppose them and leave them open to attacks on defense and defense jobs. Others exert pressure on GOP stragglers, to remind them how central support for Israel is to the Republican Party. Still others hope in vain for blue-state Democrats who put principle before fidelity to the White House. It is not a matter of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” for this effort is neither vast nor, in many cases, all that right-wing; nor do these groups sit in a war room together mapping out the next move.
Rather, it is a recognition that on the war on terror, support for Israel, and determination to confront the Iranian threat, the GOP can show rare unanimity and make a clear demarcation: This is what we believe; this is what they do. It is very conceivable that the number of “yes” votes for Hagel on the Democratic side is nearly matched by the “no” votes on the Republican side, and vice versa.
Part of the energy is no doubt also fueled by the conviction among Republican senators that the pick was a deliberate attempt to provoke a fight, as with so many post-election moves by the president. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) spoke for most Republicans when he said in an interview, “I cannot imagine why [President Obama] is going to the trouble of picking Chuck Hagel when the president has received signals for weeks now from both the right and the left, from Democrats and Republicans, saying this is not a good choice. There are so many people – Democrat and Republican – who could sail through this process and could be confirmed 100-0, like Leon Panetta was.” But of course, if you are looking to pick a fight, Hagel would be just the fellow.
The White House seemed to panic early, putting out letters and Dem senators to give assurance that Hagel didn’t mean or no longer meant or never meant what he had been saying for years. Wicker seized on this, mocking the ridiculous flip-flops, as did Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) Now Hagel has not only a slew of policy problems but a problem with his integrity. The White House-induced confirmation conversion has made things worse, not better for their nominee.
Events have also conspired against Hagel. He is reaching the hearing date just as the fight over the sequester reaches a fever pitch. His cheerleading for slashing defense and his flippant comment about Defense Department “bloat” now run headlong into our top military commanders pleading for an alternative to the sequester, which would gut their budgets. Robert Zarate notes that red-state senators will be waking up to the implications of Hagel’s nuclear disarmament notions:
The sweeping recommendations of Hagel’s co-authored Global Zero report were forcefully rejected by the U.S. military’s Strategic Command, which oversees the command and control of the nuclear arsenal. As Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters in August 2012, “Regarding the Global Zero report, in my view we have the force size, force structure, and force posture today that we need for our national security needs.”
As senators and their staff prepare to examine Hagel’s nomination to the Pentagon, it is critical that they closely and carefully scrutinize Hagel about the implications of his public proposals to slash the U.S. nuclear arsenal for their states—and, most importantly, for America’s national security. Understanding these implications are all the more important, given that President Obama still has not fully lived up to his 2010 promise to Congress to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the ultimate guarantor of America’s national security.
Then there is the president’s remark that Israel doesn’t understand what its interests are, rekindling the conviction that the president harbors animosity (which Hagel will only exacerbate) toward Israel’s elected government. If possible Hagel’s nomination suggests the acrimonious relations between Israel and the U.S. will only get worse.
On Iran, those not known for hyperbole worry that Hagel’s nomination, as Robert Satloff writes in The Post, “ironically, has made conflict with Iran more likely by raising doubts about Washington’s commitment to the administration’s stated policy.” Because Hagel has criticized “key elements” of the policy seeking to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability, Satloff concludes, the pick “raises doubts among allies and adversaries alike that Obama may not be nearly so committed to using all means necessary to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon as he pledged during his reelection campaign.”
Then there are the events in Libya and now Algeria. Plainly, the war against Islamic terrorism is far from over and in fact is spreading through Africa. This calls into question Hagel’s enthusiasm for slashing our defense capabilities and his bizarrely indifferent stance toward terrorist groups.
He refused repeatedly to brand Yasser Arafat a terrorist, declined to join in a condemnation of the 2000 intifada against Israel, pushed for direct negotiations with Hamas, voted against branding the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist group, backed Hezbollah’s call for an immediate cease-fire in the Lebanon War and declined sign a letter asking the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. He remained until very recently an apologist for Bashar al-Assad, voting against sanctions and continuing to call for dialogue with the Syrian strongman.
Is this really the man to deal with the shadowy al-Qaeda-related terrorist groups, communicate to the Palestinian Authority that it must break its relationship with Hamas and be unequivocal in his denunciation of the Assad bloodbath and possible use of chemical weapons? Even if he is now serious, why should all of these groups take him seriously?
In sum, both unexpected pressure from anti-Hagel groups and the passage of events have refocused the concerns somewhat away from purely his anti-Israel views: Does Hagel have the credibility and determination to deal with the array of national security issues (Is his heart really in his newfound positions?) or will, given his about-face on most every issue, instead signal to friends and foes that this is an unserious official, selected by a president unserious and unfocused on the threats America faces? The more we know about Hagel the worse the nomination looks.
You can bet the anti-Hagel forces will continue to plug away at his record and continue to dig deeper before the hearing on Jan. 31. By then, his handlers better come up with an argument for his nomination, and he will need something more convincing than “changed my mind!” for the interrogation.