Hagel runs the Senate gauntlet

WASHINGTON--Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated to be President Obama's secretary of defense, arrived at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee knowing what to expect. His critics, conservative fellow Republicans poised to extract their pound of flesh, did not disappoint.

In a day-long ritual that has long been standard in such televised settings, Hagel was obliged to suffer a combination of painful reminders of his own verbal excesses mixed with boorish and insulting interrogations. To protect his Cabinet nomination in this hostile environment, he often bobbed and weaved in Mohammed Ali rope-a-dope fashion, escaping with a few bruises but no knockdowns.

A man usually known for his candor and willingness to take on a fight, with a record as a wounded and decorated Vietnam War veteran behind him, Hagel essentially played the game. He sat calmly and weathered the assaults transparently designed to embarrass or at least fluster him, led by former colleagues Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

The two are still staunch defenders of the Bush war of choice in Iraq that required a diversion from the imperative war in Afghanistan in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 based from there. They made the most they could of Hagel's opposition to the Bush troop surges in both places.

McCain particularly, insisting that the surge in Iraq worked, demanded that Hagel say whether he had been right or wrong in calling it the most dangerous foreign policy blunder since the war in Vietnam. Hagel declined, saying he would "defer to the judgment of history to sort that out." But McCain insisted that judgment had already been rendered against the witness.

McCain badgered Hagel to the point of declining his efforts to explain his position. Later, however, Hagel in acknowledging "I did question the surge" added, "I always ask this question: Is this going to be worth the sacrifice?" He noted that nearly 1,200 Americans were killed thereafter, and "I'm not that certain that it was required."

That view, eventually shared according to the public-opinion polls by most Americans, has been at the heart of the Obama administration's drive to extricate U.S. forces from both countries. Hagel clearly endorses it, as well as the whole Obama foreign policy focus of reversing the adventurism of the previous Republican administration. The ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, robotically read from a series of earlier Hagel comments for which the Nebraskan has been attacked, including criticisms of the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. The witness vowed his support of Israel, admitting he could not back up his flippant remark on how the "Jewish lobby" intimidated Congress.

The usually mild-mannered Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama hounded Hagel on previous observations in support of the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons, a long-range goal of Obama and most former presidents. Hagel said he shared that view but declared his opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament, as did Obama. In other words, he insisted he remained in harmony with the administration he was seeking to join.

Amid the barrage of criticism from Republican senators on the committee, Hagel found support from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who said "I feel like I want to apologize for some of the tone and demeanor" of the criticism dished out by committee colleagues.

With the Democrats holding a 14-12 majority on the committee, it seems likely Hagel will weather the stormy and combative hearings. He remained essentially in a defensive posture on details of past comments, while adhering to the basics of Obama's foreign policy of more restrained overseas engagement.

With the Democrats holding 43 seats in the new Senate and two Independents dependably voting with them, the administration needs to pick up only five of the 45 Republicans to win floor confirmation of Hagel. As a Republican, albeit a moderate one, he should survive the temporary tempest against him. That is, unless the Senate Republicans wish to add fuel to their party's already tattered brand as obstructionist in bitterly divided Washington.

(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

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