Chuck Hagel is flanked by two former lions of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, Republican of Virgina and Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia.
The opening theme to the hearings is service, bipartisan style: Warner and Nunn invoke each other’s military service and long years in the Senate; each notes Hagel’s Vietnam heroism.
Warner, interestingly, notes Hagel’s likability; some of the opposition Hagel-bashing had cited anonymous former staffers and interlocutors as describing him as imperious.
There are also some subtle pro-Israel inferences before Hagel speaks; Warner and Nunn both had pro-Israel records, and sitting behind Hagel, and among his supporters, is Kenneth Feinberg, famous for brokering compensation for victims of Sept. 11, Agent Orange and other afflictions; he is also tied deeply to the Jewish community; his wife, Dede, is ensnconced high in the lay leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Here’s what Feinberg had to say a couple of weeks ago in the New York Daily News:
I have carefully examined each of these criticisms, and not one of them is accurate or convincing. For example, I do not believe that the leaders of the Jewish community who raise questions about Hagel’s commitment to the State of Israel speak for the vast majority of Jews in our nation. To me, it is an outrage to suggest that Hagel is in any way anti-Semitic or hostile to the best interests of Israel.
Hagel gets right to the pro-Israel in his opening remarks, but first through implication:
No one individual vote, no one individual quote defines me.
Then more directly:
I am fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon …. all options are on the table to reach that goal.
I will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region.
In his first Q and A with SASC chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Hagel reiterates his support for Iran sanctions, and emphatically notes that when he questioned the efficacy of some past sanctions in real time he had the agreement of the george W. Bush administration.
Ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member, runs through a list of five pro-Israel votes or actions Hagel missed or voted against. Hagel asks for a clarification regarding an October 2001 letter supporting Israel, and Inhofe can’t quite place it — so he asks for aqcknowledgment of the four votes, to some chuckles, and Hagel acknowledges the votes. Inhofe asks him to explain these later.
Inhofe finishes with an especially hateful quote from an Iranian regime source, and asks Hagel why he thinks the source hates Israel so and why, then Iran, seems to thing Hagel is a great candidate; Hagel punts, saying it’s "difficult enough" to figure out American politics.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asks Hagel to respond more broadly to Inhofe’s list of non-pro-Israel supportive actions, and Hagel runs down his list of pro-Israel votes/actions.
The way I approached every vote I took in the Senate was based on what I thought would be most effective.
Regarding his absence from an American Jewish Committee letter in 1999 to Boris Yeltsin asking him to tamp down on anti-Semitism, he notes a similar letter he signed — but to the White House:
I always thought the best way to deal with foreign leaders was to let the president to deal with iot directly.
It was never a matter of differing objectives here, it weas a matter of how best we could do it.
He notes complimentary quotes from Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister.
He says he worked hard to keep the USO in Israel open, when he ran the USO in the 1980s. (There has been reporting to the contrary.)
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) launches a "Hagel is totally mainstream" Q and A — ie, a flurry of softballs. She leads with Iran-Israel related-questions (pro-sanctions, yes, regards Hezbollah as terrorist, yes.)
What’s notable about this hearing so far is less which Republican may or may not vote for Hagel (Hagel and John McCain just had a fraught to and fro about the Iraq war surge); it’s how fiercely Democrats, so far, are committed to his confirmation.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), right out of the box, starts with Iran, wants to know why Hagel did not vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as terrorist, and what his red lines on Iran, does he still advocate direct negotiations with Iran, and what military alterations are necessary in Gulf to deal with Iran.
This is the issue from a national security standpoint.
Hagel on IRGC: Notes that opposition to designation was initiated by former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who opposed designating as terrorist government bodies. Rationale: such designation is tantamount to authorizing force against Iran
Two Hagel faux-pas — describing Iranian government he uses "legitimate" (maybe) "independent" (what di=oes that mean?) and "elected" (uh-oh.)
And then he says he "supports the president’s position on containment." It’s "prevention." "Containment" in this Senate is akin to saying "the bean soup here lacks flavor."
Also: Chambliss’ challenge on direct talks ("we’ve never talked with terrorist states") is more a challenge of Obama administration policy than Hagel, per se.
Hagel walks back "containment," says he misspoke, there’s no position on "containment." Levin corrects him: There is a position on containment — the Senate is against. Hagel apologizes for misspeaking while apologizing for misspeaking.
I’ve had more attention to my words over the last six weeks…
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), notes critics who say Hagel is soft on Iran, "anti Israel." "These are very serious charges."
(Note: Udall was one of four vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in 2014 who was targeted by Christians United for Israel newspaper ads urging the senators not to confirm Hagel.)
Udall asks Hagel to discuss military option on Iran, elaborate support for Israel.
Hagel notes his support for "special relationship" with Israel.
Udall softballs Hagel on IRGC vote: "You were protecting the Congress’ prerogative when it comes to declaring war."
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) notes that Hagel explained his opposition to unilateral Iran sanctions the day after he was nominated, but within days, was writing and saying that he now backs them.
Wicker also raises Hagel’s "Jewish lobby" comment, noted that he had retracted the statement and apologized for it. He wants to know if he still tthinks "they succeed in doing dumb things through intimidation and theat U.S. policy has been wrong" because of it.
I’ve already said I regret referencing the Jewish lobby, I should have said pro-Israel lobby.
The use of intimidation — I should have used influence, I think would have been more appropriate.
I should not have said dumb or stupid, because I understand or appreciate there are other views on these things.
Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.), another 2014 culnerable subject to a CUFI as, is "personally to committed to israel’s security as a Jewish state," she was just in Israel, the ties between military and intelligence "have never been stronger." She wants Hagel to reaffirm his own commitment.
Sen. Kelley Ayotte (R-N.H.) gets to comprehensive Iran sanctions legislation that was put on hold by anonymous senator(s) in 2008. He acknowledges:
I was one of some Republican senators who did not want that bull to go forward, the reason I did is because the Bush administration did not want that bill to go forward.
Interesting: I was unaware that there was more than one GOP senator involved, and also had not heard explicitly (although I had suspected) that it was at the Bush administration’s behest.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) regrets not having served with Hagel, suggesting both of them stand up to special interests.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) brings up Iran first, wants him to clarify earlier comment that Iran is "legitimate." Hagel:
What I meant to say, should have said is that its recognizable, its recognized its been recognized at the United Nations… that’s what i should have said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says comment about intimidating is "provocative" statement. "Name one dumb thing … we’re pressured to do one dumb thing."
Hagel repeats that he shouldn’t have made the statement.
Interestingly, Graham uses "Jewish lobby" and also "Israeli lobby" which is arguably more offensive.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), no pro-Israel slouch, wants to get into structure of military — the Israel issue is "exhausted."