The Unique Qualifications of Chuck Hagel

By all accounts, Former Senator Chuck Hagel didn’t have a good day last Thursday, when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation hearings as President Obama’s choice to become the secretary of defense. According to Obama advisor and former press secretary Robert Gibbs, he was “unimpressive and unprepared.”

Any objective observer would agree that those words were too kind. Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume said that Hagel was “unresponsive and bumbling” and that “it’s probably dawning on senators who didn’t serve with Hagel that he’s just not very bright.”

Hagel, who famously called the Pentagon budget “bloated,” responded to a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham by overstating the percent of GDP spent on defense by over 60 percent. (That may be why he thinks it’s “bloated”…) He also misstated the administration’s position on “containment” as a policy in regard to Iran. He said they support it, a position he has long personally held, then backtracked when passed a note by a staffer saying they have no position on it, before being corrected by Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) with the administration’s actual position.

When questioned by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), he said, “There are a lot of things I don’t know about. If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more.” And in a moment largely forgotten during the hearings, Hagel told Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) that when the president offered him the job, “…he asked me why am I …uniquely qualified,” said Hagel. “I said I’m not.”

That, in and of itself, should have caused the president to think again about his pick. Which raises the question: why did Obama choose Hagel, and why, even after his disastrous hearing, is he sticking with him?

Many on the left had hoped that the reason the president chose Mr. Hagel was to shatter what they called a fake consensus on American policy toward Iran and challenge what they saw as the limits of Washington conversation about Israel. By nominating someone with Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran, and with the cover provided by his being a member of the GOP, this looked to blow the cover off what was considered acceptable discourse on the Middle East. The left-wing J-Street cheered the nomination, with director Jeremy Ben-Ami saying, “It means there’s more bark than bite to the intimidation some right-wing groups have tried to exert over those who disagree with them.”

While this may have played into the original thinking when nominating Sen. Hagel, it was neutralized by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who all but threatened to withhold his support unless Hagel provided “clarifications” of his past positions, forcing him to adopt a more pro-Israel view.

Of the many missteps made throughout the hearing, two were particularly illuminating. One was what Hagel said after asserting he had no unique qualifications for the position. Speaking to Sen. King, he said, “I would never think that… I will be running anything…if that gives you some sense of how I would intend to do this business.”

Another was between Sen. Hagel and Lindsey Graham on the subject of whether Hagel would reconsider his vote against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. When pressed whether, if given the chance to vote on it that very day, he would vote for that designation, Hagel, before conceding he’d reconsider his previous position, uttered this strange sentence: “Well, I would want to know from the president what they were doing.”

It’s no secret that President Obama has plans to remake the military to accommodate the budget cuts contained in the Budget Control Act, otherwise known as the sequester. Last January he announced plans to pare down its operational ability to one that could no longer sustain two wars at once. This doesn’t seem to be only due to the budget cuts, however, as the president said then: “I would encourage all of us to remember what President Eisenhower once said: ‘each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.’ After a decade of war, and as we rebuild the sources of our strength at home and abroad, it’s time to restore that balance.”

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, however, as recently as this Sunday … was asked about these cuts. His response was a strong departure from the White house position. He called the cuts “shameful” and “irresponsible” and warned that “if sequester goes into effect and we have to do the kind of cuts that will go right at readiness, right at maintenance, right at training, we are gonna weaken the United States and make it much more difficult for us to respond to the crises in the world.”

Historically, the position of civilian leader of our nation’s military has been filled (and rightfully so) by men of extraordinary intelligence, who are also strong-minded individuals. Panetta, and former Secretaries Gates and Rumsfeld — the previous three — are perfect examples of this. It would seem, from the comments of Secretary Panetta, that President Obama was not seeing eye-to-eye with him on the military restructuring. Perhaps Mr. Obama was looking for someone — in the words of Brit Hume — “not very bright” who would, as Mr. Hagel told Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), see himself as someone who “won’t be in a policy-making position” and when faced with decisions will “want to know from the president” because he “would never think that…[he] will be running anything.”

So maybe that’s just one more thing he was wrong about. Maybe Chuck Hagel is, indeed, “uniquely qualified.”