The Senate confirmation hearings over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense were a classic case of garbage in, garbage out. Sadly, they were par for the course in the American national-security debate.
The hearings literally broke Twitter in the early going, and the tweets with the hashtag #Hagel flew so quickly that it was impossible to follow them from TweetDeck. But my regular foreign-policy coterie shared my real time reaction to the unfolding farce: the questions were outrageous and the answers were frustrating.
Army War College strategist Steven Metz declared, "Yesterday's confirmation hearing was the political equivalent of 'Jersey Shore.'"
Security blogger Marcy Wheeler, on a rare bright spot after an actually thoughtful question from Maine's Angus King (he's new), proclaimed, "See? Hagel DID prep for a hearing. One where serious, rather than clown show, questions were going to be asked."
The Center for American Progress' Zach Beauchamp perhaps summed it up best: "The one thing I've learned today: I'm terrified that some of these people are making foreign policy on my behalf."
While I usually disagree with them on security policy, I respect both John McCain and Lindsay Graham as players. They've both spent decades steeped in the issues, both in the Senate and in uniform. But both used their time for grandstanding and score settling rather than probing the man who will potentially lead the nation's largest department through a perilous and uncertain future.
Frankly, whether the 2007 troop surge in Iraq was a good idea is completely irrelevant to leading the Pentagon in 2013. And the views of the secretary of defense on our diplomatic stance toward Israel aren't relevant, period. As The Atlantic's James Fallows observes, "Virtually none of the hostile questions for Hagel reflected awareness that a Secretary of Defense, no matter how influential, does not set U.S. foreign policy, does not decide where and whether to commit troops, does not decide on boycotts versus engagement with Iran, does not make war-or-peace decisions, and in countless other ways is not the President of the United States." Although, interestingly, John Kerry was just confirmed easily as secretary of state despite sharing Hagel's views on these issues.
Hagel, chairman of the Atlantic Council, is my boss' boss. But the policy wonk in me found his answers, even given how little he had to work with, disappointing, even frustrating. We agree on almost every issue he was challenged on yesterday and, frankly, I could have given better answers to most of the questions off the top of my head, without the weeks of preparation at the hands of Pentagon staffers, than he gave yesterday. Hell, I think Global Zero is silly and could still offer a decent defense.
Then again, so could the Chuck Hagel who's led the Atlantic Council the last four years.
The Project on Government Oversight's Winslow Wheeler describes Hagel's performance as "fumbling and apologetic" and declares, "Unlike most effective politicians who are always clever at saying nothing or changing positions, he was so inarticulate at doing so that it is also hard to understand how he ever could have been elected twice to the Senate from Nebraska." But that's precisely the problem: Hagel never has been a typical politician. Like the late Mayor Ed Koch, Hagel is that rare public official who's always said what's on his mind and voted his conscience on the issues without much caring what anyone thought about it.
Like Hagel, I was an early skeptic of the Iraq War ultimately persuaded by my president to support the effort. Like Hagel, I turned against the war pretty quickly once it became obvious that the costs exceeded the benefits. But the only price I paid for it was alienating some readers and fellow bloggers; Hagel was branded a traitor by the vice president of the United States and lost good friendships, including that of fellow Vietnam War hero McCain.
Some of those questioning his patriotism and judgment yesterday still see the Iraq debate first and foremost as a test of party loyalty that Hagel failed. For someone who learned the cost of war at an early age, there was a higher loyalty at stake: to those Americans who had volunteered to fight for their country, trusting in the judgment of their elected officials to make sure it was worth their going into harm's way.
Alas, his hands were tied yesterday. For perhaps the first time since Basic Training, he wasn't free to speak his mind. CAP's Matt Duss puts yesterday's circus into perspective:
Looking to make sense of the spectacle, I spoke to a former senior defense official who has testified over 200 times before Congressional committees, who suggested that Hagel may have been right not to push back harder. “The thing to remember with these hearings is that the Senators have home-field advantage,” he said. “You really can’t win. If they’re there to score points, they’ll do it.”
As to the element of performance involved, “Once, before a hearing, I was passed a note by a Senator,” the former official continued. “It read ‘Don’t pay attention to what I’m about to say, it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at my constituents.’ So there’s a lot of theater involved in these things.”
That's a rather kind understatement. In fact, the hearings—like pretty much all congressional hearings—are almost entirely theater with very little substance. The senators have already made up their mind on how they're going to vote. Many of them know Hagel personally; he served with them for eight years. They've already met with the nominee privately and their staffs have already prepared massive briefing books for them on Hagel's previous statements and writings on issues of importance. So, they're not there to have a genuine exchange of information; they're there to score points back home.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.