On a frigid morning this January, something peculiar happened.
A man seeking one of the highest offices in the United States sat down in a room filled with some of the sharpest minds in the land, and for nearly four hours they had a serious discussion on the most important foreign policy issues of the day.
They talked about bringing the Afghanistan war to a successful close, forging prosperity in Iraq, dealing with extremism in Pakistan, ending bloodshed in Syria, stabilizing Egypt, meeting the rise of China, supporting financial recovery in Europe, nursing democracy in Latin America, ensuring Iran doesn’t launch a nuclear arms race or menace its neighbors, saving the world from global warming — and accomplishing all this during an uncertain economy.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), testifying before Congress to become the next secretary of state, for the most part answered the questions with candor, intelligence, sensitivity and gravitas.
His Jan. 24 confirmation hearing began with a prologue in which the senior statesman of the other party, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), introduced Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would be measuring his fate.
In our times, all of this, sadly, has become exceedingly uncommon. It was an event to savor, one in which the public got the dissection of American foreign policy it is owed.
For anyone who might have concluded, however, that a new wind of reason and comity had swept through the Capitol, only two weeks later, another senate confirmation hearing laid that notion to rest
When former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 31 in his bid to become the next defense secretary, what followed was the venomous, small-minded, self-serving politics we know all too well. It was a shameful display of showmanship that robbed America of the chance to appraise how the administration intends to approach security, defense and the war our soldiers have been fighting for more than a decade.
As of press time, Hagel has yet to be confirmed. Led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who, not coincidentally is fending off a Tea Party challenge in his home state, Republicans successfully filibustered his nomination on Feb. 14. They didn’t technically call it a “filibuster” but that’s just semantics; they blocked an up-or-down vote. At first, Republicans expressed deep misgivings about Hagel’s foreign policy views. Then that morphed into unsubstantiated insinuations about Hagel’s financial records. The final reason for the obstructionism was to force the Obama administration to answer more questions about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans — an event completely unrelated to Hagel. (Benghazi was also cited as a reason why some GOP senators were planning to hold up the confirmation of John Brennan.)
Democrats eventually mustered enough Republican votes to confirm Hagel at the end of February. Still, the GOP filibuster was unprecedented for a Cabinet pick — but the real low was reached earlier, during his Senate confirmation hearing.
In the Kerry hearing, the public got the debate it deserved — in the Hagel hearing, we got what we’ve come to expect in lieu. Even John Brennan, in his Senate appearance to become the next CIA director, did not get pounded as hard as Hagel did (at least not by lawmakers, though he was heckled by protesters) — despite criticism Brennan has faced from both the left and right as one of the chief architects of the administration’s counterterrorism policy. Brennan’s hearing, in fact, offered a rare moment for Congress and the public to openly debate the sharp rise in drone strikes and the legality of targeted killings.
Indeed, congressional confirmation hearings are one of the few remaining bastions of in-depth, civil discourse in U.S. politics. Sometimes lasting six hours or longer, they offer a forum for serious discussion that goes far beyond the opportunistic TV sound bites or vague presidential speeches to which we’ve become accustomed — and numb.
During the most recent presidential contest, Americans were exposed to some of the worst our political system has to offer. By and large, the candidates avoided thoughtfulness on all matters — with an especial aversion to foreign affairs — and instead the public was fed policy pabulum sprinkled with an assortment of attack ads, red meat and gotcha gaffes. And this happened all while tens of thousands of American troops were still deployed in the longest war of our country’s history.
This same shunning of reality was on ugly display during the Hagel hearing, which offered a prime opportunity to debate the Afghan drawdown and a host of other pressing defense issues. The reasons for why it was so different from the Kerry hearing range from politics, personal histories and grievances, to irrational obsessions and plain-old dollars and cents.
And while Hagel did himself no favors with a clumsy, seemingly ill-prepared and widely panned performance, the lack of respect shown in the Senate — a chamber traditionally known for its collegiality — toward a former colleague and decorated war veteran marked a new low in the history of confirmation hearings.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) set the tone early, employing a tactic familiar to anyone who’s watched overzealous actors play hard-nosed prosecutors on TV, in which they shout a question and then demand an answer without letting the defendant actually reply.
“The question I’d like to ask you,” said the Senate Armed Services Committee’s new ranking member, “and you can answer it for the record if you’d like, is why do you think that the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?”
Hours of henpecking followed the precedent Inhofe began.
The recently elected Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) injected cable news punditry into the congressional proceedings, mugging to the cameras so he might grace the evening airwaves. He orchestrated his gofers to raise posters printed with quotes attributed to Hagel and had them roll in a TV to replay footage of Hagel — and then cited quotes out of context.
Cruz even invoked the Holocaust, ironically in order to accuse Hagel of diminishing the significance of the Holocaust.
Both of the clips Cruz ran were from a show on Al Jazeera that featured call-in and write-in questions. The topic being discussed was reducing nuclear arsenals, but a heavily accented caller — some portions were rendered “inaudible” in the transcripts — garbled a litany of grievances in the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Sri Lanka. He concluded by describing a “total moral failure” among world leaders.
Hagel responded: “Well, I think you’re exactly right. And I said in my opening statement that that leadership is critical, because we know that in life, nothing is ever accomplished without leadership.”
Somehow, Cruz translated that into Hagel agreeing with a part of the caller’s ramble that included the phrase “war crimes.”
“Do you think the nation of Israel has committed war crimes?” Cruz asked.
“No, but — no, I do not, Senator,” Hagel, taken aback, replied. “I’d want to look at the full context of the interview, but to answer your question, no.”
Cruz then compared the video clip to a statement the nominee made six years ago.
“I would suggest that a suggestion that Israel has committed war crimes is particularly offensive,” said Cruz, “given that the Jewish people suffered under the most horrific war crimes in the Holocaust.”
Cruz had connected the statement from a video with Hagel’s quote that referred to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah with the phrase “sickening slaughter.”
The problem with using this quote — as John Judis pointed out in the New Republic — is that Hagel’s full statement paints a rather different picture: “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end, and it must end now. President Bush must call for an immediate ceasefire,” Hagel said, referring to the 2006 war between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel that left an estimated 1,300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis dead.
Hagel failed to clarify the quote, while Cruz twice cut off Hagel’s responses with “my time is limited” — at an all-day hearing.
It would have been interesting to see Hagel, a willing and deft verbal combatant during his two terms in the Senate, go tête-à-tête with Cruz. Instead, the nominee seemed strangely content to absorb fire from every direction.
And Cruz, a former standout on the Princeton Debate Panel and now a rising Tea Party hero, seemed to be fishing for a scandal, suggesting that Hagel went on “Al Jazeera, a foreign network” to broadcast “propaganda to nations that are hostile to us.”
More recently, Cruz latched onto foreign conspiracy innuendos in an attempt to hold up the confirmation vote, accusing Hagel of giving “paid speeches at extreme or radical groups,” though he didn’t back up what many saw as spurious charges.
The extent of GOP opposition to Hagel’s nomination, while ferocious, should come as little surprise given the former Republican senator’s closeness with Obama over the years. Even though the American Conservative Union gave Hagel a conservative voting record above 80 percent during his two terms, there’s no love lost between the GOP and the man who vocally (and presciently) spoke out against the war in Iraq that was championed by neoconservatives.
Hagel’s no favorite among liberals, either. Democrats closed ranks to support him — albeit reluctantly. Prominent Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York had to be convinced that Hagel wouldn’t be too antagonistic toward Israel or too accommodating on Iran. (Hagel’s past stance toward gays also rankled liberals.)
Although Hagel has made some controversial statements over the years (the “Jewish lobby” reference has certainly come back to haunt him), many of the comments have been exploited and overblown. Hagel’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (advocating a negotiated two-state solution) and pursuing nuclear talks with Iran hardly fall outside the mainstream. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the domain of the White House and Congress anyway, not the Pentagon, where Israel’s robust military ties with the United States are not going to change, no matter who’s in charge.
Yet Israel and Iran consumed an inordinate chunk of Hagel’s confirmation hearing, obscuring many other critical national defense matters.
As the website BuzzFeed noted, Iran was mentioned 144 times during the hearing, while Afghanistan was mentioned 20 times.
According to my count, “North Korea” and “North Korean[s]” were mentioned less than a dozen times. Only a few weeks after the hearing, Kim Jong-un detonated the nation’s third, and most powerful, nuclear device.
And what about China? Despite America’s major military realignment known as the Asian pivot, “China” and “Chinese” were mentioned a mere five times.
A country that did get referenced a lot was Vietnam. Despite their differences, it was this connection that linked the Kerry and Hagel hearings, enmeshing McCain as well.
Analysts have speculated whether Kerry and Hagel, both Vietnam vets, will usher in an era of retrenchment in U.S. foreign policy. Although neither man disavows the use the force, both are wary of entangling American troops in unnecessary foreign interventions.
That gets to a very practical reason why Hagel’s hearing was qualitatively different than Kerry’s — one that has nothing to do with beef and everything to do with pork.
According to the Congressional Research Service, expenditures for international affairs usually add up to about 1.5 percent of the total federal budget. For reference, at the beginning of last year, the Obama administration requested about $55 billion for the foreign operations under the State Department’s mantle.
Compare that to its request for about $620 billion for the Department of Defense (including $519 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget plus $88 billion for overseas contingency operations).
Add on top of that $18 billion bound for the Energy Department, which is also within the Senate Armed Services Committee’s purview because of nuclear arms.
It’s plain to see then why the selection process for the next secretary of defense — who will make budget recommendations to the White House that impact one of the nation’s most lucrative industries — might get heated.
The next leader of the Pentagon will also have to guide the massive bureaucracy through years of belt-tightening — and many believe Hagel intends to be a reformer who would tackle bloated spending.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), for example, drilled Hagel over whether or not he planned to reduce the military’s fleet of nuclear subs. Considering that New London, Conn., is sometimes called “the submarine capital of the world,” why he cared so deeply wasn’t hard to deduce.
This, after all, is why senators seek out slots on committees like Armed Services: Because there they grip purse strings that can greatly affect the welfare of their home states. A position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the other hand, may confer prestige but usually does not benefit constituents directly.
Partisanship and personal grudges aside, Hagel’s views on America’s place in the world — and how far the military should go in securing that place — deserve scrutiny. How much can defense spending be cut without endangering national security? How large does America’s nuclear arsenal need to be? Should the United States arm Syria’s rebels or stay out of that country’s civil war? How much of a military presence should we maintain in Afghanistan — or the entire Middle East for that matter, as shaky Arab governments fall to public discontent?
Hagel would become the first enlisted soldier to run the Pentagon, a background that undoubtedly affects his view of war, given that he’s experienced it firsthand, and that should rightfully be examined.
Still, it was astounding to witness Hagel’s loyalty to his country — one he had volunteered to defend on the frontlines in Vietnam, earning two Purple Hearts in the process — questioned. It was yet another low in American political discourse, on par with the “swift boating” attacks on Kerry during his presidential run or the suggestion during McCain’s campaign in 2000 that he was a “Manchurian candidate.”
Since losing his presidential bid, Kerry has rehabilitated his image, earning bipartisan respect for his work as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where his former colleagues lavished praise on Kerry’s military record during his confirmation hearing. Hagel’s military service, however, received token mention. So it went with these two hearings: It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.
Kerry’s hearing was not entirely without drama. At one point, an anti-war protestor interrupted the proceedings. Kerry acknowledged her in this way: “People measure what we do,” he said to his fellow senators.
It was an uncanny bookend to Kerry’s career in the Senate, where he testified before the same committee in 1971 on how the government misled Americans into Vietnam and how some of them committed unspeakable acts there.
The public only gets a few instances these days when it can gauge what its leaders think and why they do what they do.
And, yes, people measure them by it.
That’s the basis for the nation that America’s founders intended. They designed a process for picking leaders — senators, presidents, cabinet secretaries — who would be scrutinized. They hoped citizens would have a chance to measure those who sought these offices, and would choose good candidates.
In this age, though, probity has become a rarity. Too often our leaders act like no one is watching, or if people are, they’re not looking closely.
If that’s the case, we’ll all have to live with the consequences.
About the Author
Luke Jerod Kummer is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.