President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel–a man of both bluntness and integrity–came under withering attack Thursday from a man with few shreds of integrity left, Senator John McCain. Much of the consensus about the Hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee was that the nominee didn’t “perform” well. A hallmark of Hagel’s personality is that he doesn’t “perform,” but he did seem to struggle with being himself within the current vicious atmosphere in Congress.
Republican Chuck Hagel is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War who still bears the evidence of his wounds–just like John McCain, a man who used to be his friend. The two have a history that became increasingly rocky in the last decade over issues of war. When they were still close, Hagel was McCain’s co-chair for the presidential campaign of 2000, and the candidate had Hagel on a short list of possible Secretaries of Defense. Even as late as 2006, McCain said he’d be “honored to have Chuck with me in any capacity. He’d make a great secretary of state.” But the Iraq war changed everything.
After his service in Vietnam, Hagel made this view known:
“I made myself a promise that if I ever got out of that place and was ever in a position to do something about war — so horrible, so filled with suffering — I would do whatever I could to stop it. I have never forgotten that promise.”
He saw the Bush administration as making a big mistake by going to war with Iraq and wrote in his memoir:
“We blundered into Iraq because of flawed intelligence, flawed assumptions, flawed judgments, and ideologically driven motives.”
Although he initially voted to support the war, he increasingly voiced his opposition to it, and especially to the Bush administration’s troop surge. McCain vigorously defended both and is still doing so. An anonymous McCain ally, speaking to the Washington Post, explained what happened to the men’s friendship:
“Quite simply, the split began over the length and cost of the Iraq war and Hagel’s decision to not support the surge, which John took as a personal insult. It’s very sad.”
The Senator’s entire grilling of the nominee on Thursday consisted of trying to get Hagel to admit that McCain was right and he was wrong. McCain said to Hagel:
“In March 2008, you said, quote, ‘Here the term quagmires could apply. Some reject that term, but if that is not a quagmire, then what is?’ Even as late as August 29, 2011, in an interview with the Financial Times you said, ‘I disagree with the President Obama, his decision to surge in Iraq as I did with President Bush on the surge in Iraq.’ …
“Were you correct or incorrect when you said the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?”
The badgering went on for six minutes with Hagel trying to explain that the answer to that was complicated. When McCain insisted on a yes or no answer, Hagel told him:
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no. I think it’s far more complicated than that. As I’ve already said, my answer is, I’ll defer that judgment to history.”
Still, McCain would not give it a rest. Other senators were interested in different questions, with the most conservative members also bullying the nominee. But McCain was hellbent on getting Hagel to tell him that he, McCain, had been right.
In spite of the hostile atmosphere and a lackluster “performance,” Hagel managed to affirm his commitment to care for veterans, equality for gay service members, the opening of combat positions to women, preparing for cyber-warfare, and, oh yes, to the defense of Israel–another area that hard core conservatives like South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham tried to attack (though Hagel has been endorsed by five former ambassadors to Israel).
Shamefully, McCain was interested only in wresting vindication from the nominee. The attack by him, and others, moved committee member Joe Manchin III, a conservative Democrat and party maverick from West Virginia, to apologize to Hagel for the harsh tone of the hearing.
Whatever McCain hoped to accomplish, the only person he made look bad was himself in a prodigious effort that probably dissuaded no one who was already committed to supporting Hagel. The degree to which the Senator’s standing is diminished was perhaps best put by a newspaper from his own state. After the hearing, the Tucson Citizen wrote:
“Chuck Hagel will make a very good Secretary of Defense. John McCain, loser of two Presidential campaigns, who lost 3 airplanes as a naval pilot, and who dumped his first wife – a former model – when she suffered a car accident that disfigured her and confined her to a wheelchair, has never been very good at anything. Except maybe at holding a grudge.”