Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the key figure in whether Chuck Hagel clears the Senate to become the Obama administration’s new secretary of defense. The two men are old friends, and unlike many Republicans McCain has previously been tepid rather than flat-out against Hagel’s nomination.
Here’s what analysts thought, going into today’s hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee: McCain could go relatively easy on Hagel, indicating he did not have the will or desire to engage in the same kind of vicious confirmation battle that Senate Republicans waged to take down previous nominee Susan Rice. The GOP would then back down, and begrudgingly accept Hagel as SecDef.
If he attacked, then it would be a clear signal to other Republicans: we’re going to take this guy down. We’re going to savage him in the hearings then use all the procedural power we can muster to block him.
Well, guess what McCain decided on? One step further than attack: a completely hypocritical nuclear option.
Sen. McCain chose to assault Hagel on his statement that the Bush administration decision to launch a troop surge in Iraq was "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam," commenting that Hagel remained opposed "even to the point the surge was succeeding." He derided Hagel’s suggestion that the War in Iraq was a "quagmire." McCain demanded Hagel say yes or no to whether he stood by his statement.
Hagel indicated that he stood by it, since he said it, but attempted to elaborate on his position. A visibly angered McCain said "that's a direct question, and I demand a direct answer." Hagel asked to be allowed to elaborate, and McCain told the committee to note that Hagel had “refused” to answer the question.
Elaborating, Hagel said that American involvement in Iraq constituted a "war of choice," and said he stood by his assessment that the surge was the most “dangerous decision since Vietnam.”
"Aside from the cost to this country in blood and treasure, aside from what [the surge] did to take our focus off Afghanistan" – which Hagel said was the "original and real threat" to America after the September 11th attacks – he said he opposed the troop increase on the grounds that the war was unjust and our involvement would remain ineffective.
McCain called this a "fundamental" divergence in opinion and said Hagel’s refusal to answer the question on McCain's terms disgraced the thousands of Americans who lose their lives in the surge.
To call this a “fundamental” difference in their worldviews, thus indicating he could not support Hagel on ideological grounds, is incredibly misleading and hypocritical.
McCain, a five-term Senator and one-term Congressman, is a war hawk, but he’s not stupid. He’s smart enough to know Hagel opposed the surge because he believed Americans would die pointlessly. McCain might disagree with Hagel on whether the surge was a good idea or not, but to call his concern for American lives and desire to answer the question in a less simplistic manner disrespectful to those same lives that were indeed lost is a blatantly political attack. It's completely removed from practical consideration of the nominee.
McCain then went on to attack Hagel for saying he would need to use defense department resources to review the best intelligence on the Syrian civil war before committing to a strategy on reducing the violence in that country.
"How many more would have to die before you would support arming the [Syrian] resistance and establishing a no fly zone?" McCain bellowed.
Well, that’s the thing. Hagel’s answer was entirely reasonable. The secretary of defense should review the best available evidence, much of which is classified, before committing to a plan of action. McCain could have asked further qualifying questions about Hagel’s views on the Syrian conflict, but instead he flew off into a rant intended to paint the nominee as uncaring and unconcerned with the massive bloodshed in the war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Who does that to an old friend?
We should be able to feel pretty confident that McCain is being hypocritical here, because guess who McCain happily suggested for secretary of defense when he was running for president in 2000?
"There's a lot of people that could do that," he told voters at a January town hall in New Hampshire. "One of 'em, I think, is Sen. Chuck Hagel."
A lot of things have changed in the past 13 years, to be sure. Chuck Hagel’s foreign policy views are not one of them. McCain nominated the same guy he’s now claiming is completely unacceptable on ideological grounds.
This can’t even really be about the disagreement on Iraq, seeing as McCain went one step further to impugn Hagel’s worldview as somehow completely un-American. Nevermind that Hagel basically has views consistent with pre-neoconservative Republicans, ones very similar to McCain’s before his lurching embrace of the Iraq War.
Now the GOP, emboldened by McCain's attacks, is sure to do everything in their power to prevent Hagel from becoming SecDef.
What do we even get out of a blocked Hagel nomination? More gridlock and political paralysis in Washington, and a blanket Republican refusal to allow the Obama administration the bare minimum it needs to function ... a full cabinet.
If we’ve learned one thing from this exchange, it’s that Hagel is way more consistent, and way less of a jerk, than McCain.
Good thing he didn’t win in 2008!