When something unscripted happens in Washington, D.C., it is likely to induce incredulity. Pols and the media too often assume everyone is prepared, coached and ready for prime-time. It is not an unreasonable assumption when it comes to a senator and nominee for a critical Cabinet post. But when, as Chuck Hagel did on Thursday, suffer a near-total meltdown it is a shocker. In this case it was, CNN reported, Democratic and Republican senators who were shocked at how “ill-prepared” he was. They miss the mark, I think.

President Obama shakes hands with former Sen. Chuck Hagel (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) President Obama shakes hands with former Sen. Chuck Hagel (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As a preliminary matter the White House leaked that Hagel had been coached, as if the staffer were hollering, “Not our fault!” Indeed it is quite possible they had coached him but that he was unreceptive or unable to grasp the advice.

The issue is no longer Hagel’s extreme views, but his competence and, to be blunt, his smarts. The litany of gaffes, ludicrous statements, corrections and admissions of ignorance was like nothing I have witnessed in decades of watching confirmation hearings. We were left with the impression of a man who signs reports (Global Zero), or says (on Al Jazeera or at J Street) whatever is put in front of him. Did he even understand what was in his Global Zero report? Did he understand you can’t be still against unilateral sanctions and support our current Iran policy? The mainstream media reviews of his performance were brutal. And the liberal pundits’ insistence that his appalling performance won’t matter is more wishful thinking than hard analysis.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) called for a new nominee:

“Unfortunately, in confusing and contradictory testimony, he created more concerns than he allayed. His refusal to shut the door on further defense cuts put him at stark odds with the current Defense secretary and military leaders. His ambiguous and evolving positions on Iran raised more questions than answers. And his shifting, evasive answers on the future of America’s nuclear deterrent were deeply troubling.


It pains me to reach this conclusion, given Senator Hagel’s service in the armed forces and in the Senate. But at this vital time when our national security hangs in the balance, it is my opinion that Senator Hagel is unfit for the job of secretary of Defense.  When it comes to the safety of this nation, the security of our troops, and the well-being of the American people, we can and must do better. I urge President Obama to submit a viable nominee as soon as possible.”

Hagel was uninformed and unprepared, leaving him only the odd excuse that he will not be “running anything”:

There is only one constant: His barbs are always directed against Jewish Americans (not Arab Americans or Christian Americans), his out-of-the-mainstream votes are always against Israel, and his bizarre statements about Iran are always favorable to that regime.

He was too stubborn to admit error unless his handlers directed him (he had to backtrack after a break to admit Iran’s regime is not the “legitimate” government of Iran) and too dim not to double down (he couldn’t decide if Iran holds free and fair elections). He is nominated for secretary of defense but pleads that “it doesn’t matter what I think.” But it is not clear if he thinks deeply or simply offers what the moment requires. He claimed that policy questions weren’t his department. But isn’t he supposed to construct policy? How could he be trusted to meet with foreign leaders (friends or foes)? How could he give the president sound advice? It is simply inconceivable.

His ego certainly got in the way. He couldn’t admit error on the surge, so he refused to answer Sen. John McCain’s question on that topic. He couldn’t admit error in voting against unilateral sanctions so he would do so again TODAY.

He testified he had told the president he was not uniquely qualified for the job. In fact he is not capable of performing it. He certainly is less capable to head the Pentagon than Harriet Meirs was to sit on the Supreme Court, but the consequences are much more severe for putting in place an unfit civilian Pentagon chief. People die and our country is endangered by bad decisions and incompetent leaders at the Pentagon. It is stunning that the president thought Hagel was capable of such an important assignment. Does the president prefer dim, unwise men who tell him only what he wants to hear? It looks like it.

Many of the Democrats on the panel, including  Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), were slobbering in their praise, hardly bothering to formulate questions. A number of the Republicans were long-winded and ineffective in their queries. But with standouts like McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) there was no doubt that Hagel was in over his head. If he can’t handle former colleagues in a Senate hearing room, how’s he going to manage a Pentagon — not to mention a world of threats, wars and foes?

I don’t know if any Democrats will vote against him; their partisan blindness is shameful but not surprising. Too many (all?) would rather put a clueless man in charge of our national security than disappoint the White House. Republicans have every reason to oppose him, indeed the obligation to do so. If they do not stop him, they will have enabled an entirely inappropriate person to head our military at a particularly dangerous time. Will they do it? After yesterday’s Hagel debacle, they just might.