Thursday's confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee was a predictable circus of unfair accusations against former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, and a firm reaffirmation that the bipartisan foreign policy consensus of military interventionism dominates Capitol Hill.
Ordinarily, I have little to no interest in a confirmation hearing, but as I argued in a recent PolicyMic article, I was pleasantly surprised to see Hagel nominated by President Obama. Hagel is definitely a mixed bag for those of us looking for any change in U.S. foreign policy in a more peaceful direction, at times offering sober analysis and pragmatic solutions but also stepping back in line when pressed. At the very least, Hagel's nomination is sparking public debate on issues that are long overdue for review.
Here are the four most memorable moments from today's hearing:
1. Hagel is fully committed to President Obama.
In Hagel's opening remarks, he told the committee that he stands firmly with President Obama and his foreign policy, especially regarding "winding down the war in Afghanistan," using military force in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa, and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Right off the bat, I was immediately disappointed in Hagel's complete deference to President Obama's hyper-aggressive foreign policy. While offering lip service to ending the Afghan war, Hagel urged the necessity of maintaining U.S. troops there past 2014. In other words, just like how the U.S. still maintains bases in Europe, Japan, and South Korea many decades after the end of those wars, Hagel will make sure the U.S. has an indefinite military presence in Afghanistan.
With the Pentagon looking to build a new drone base on the Mali-Niger border and President Obama offering aid, weapons, and assistance to the French bombings in Mali, AFRICOM will look to be pretty busy with Hagel in charge. The blowback and unintended consequences from Obama's drone war and interventions in North Africa are nowhere near from being over, and a commitment like the one Hagel promises is sure to bog the U.S. down in the region for decades.
While Hagel has at times urged diplomacy and sanity with regards to Iran, he once again falls right in line by parroting the hawkish rhetoric of those in the U.S. and Israel beating the war drums against Iran. While I highly doubt President Obama would be so foolish as to attack Iran, Obama has already committed acts of war against Iran, implemented anti-civilian sanctions, and is working hard to make sure Iran's ally Syria is isolated and eventually overthrown.
Opening statements like these tend to be vague and fluffy, but Hagel made sure to reiterate to the rest of the committee in just a few paragraphs that the only options off the table are peace, diplomacy, and even a slight shift in policy.
2. McCain shouts Hagel down over Iraq "surge."
Senator John McCain (R -Ariz.) came out swinging against Hagel. Arguing, as if to convince himself, that these are not minor differences but rather significant divergences in policy, McCain opened up asking Hagel about Hagel's opposition to the "Iraq surge." McCain, one of the most vocal supporters of that surge, repeatedly interrupted Hagel and demanded that the record show that Hagel refused to answer McCain's question.
Hagel dodged the question a bit, claiming that history will prove who is right and wrong.
This was one of the most revealing moments because it is a great example of the tiny goal-posts of debate that exist in Washington, especially on foreign policy. The assumption behind McCain's anger is that "the surge" was a success, therefore any opposition to it should be cleansed and repented.
But McCain's celebrated "surge" was really just a highly successful media PR marketing campaign, a catchy slogan for the desperate Republicans to salvage a war that opened up a Pandora's box of ethnic and religious conflicts and handed the country over to bloodthirsty jihadists.
The surge worked. The surge worked. The surge worked. Like Orwellian propaganda, rinse and repeat.
3. Hagel pressed on women's safety, LGBT issues.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand asked Hagel to observe "stronger leadership" in looking after women in the military and the many reports of abuse, violence, and rape. Senator Mark Udall asked Hagel to clarify his position on LGBT rights, and Hagel assured his strong commitment to them.
While my position on these issues is similar to the late Bill Hicks', I thought it was incredibly notable that women's and LGBT issues would be discussed at a Defense Secretary's nomination hearing.
Left unsaid, of course, was the strain and burden placed on soldiers of all kinds who are asked to defend the interests of political power, empire, and military contractors rather than the interests of the country. The suicide rate of soldiers should attest to that.
I have absolutely no doubt that if threatened or attacked, the people of this country would rally in a just, defensive war no matter what their gender or sexual orientation is. Lost in the debate over these issues is the proper role of defense, the military, and the effect of teaching young people to kill at will.
4. Israel, Israel, Israel.
As Michael Luciano put it in a recent PolicyMic article on the Hagel hearings, "Viewers ... might be forgiven if they thought Hagel has been nominated to serve as Israel's defense minister."
Much of the criticism surrounding Hagel has been remarks he has made about the U.S.-Israeli relationship and his improper groveling before Tel Aviv. The most cringe-worthy moment of the hearing for me was watching Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — perhaps the most hawkish man in the Senate — go after Hagel over Israel.
Concerning Hagel's previous comments concerning Israel, Graham asked Hagel if he could name "one dumb thing" that the U.S. has done "the Jewish lobby" and name a single senator that is intimidated by them. Huffing and puffing, Graham feigned outrage as he cut Hagel off. Hagel was visibly annoyed as he attempted his necessary penance for his sins.
First of all, Hagel did not say that the U.S. has done "dumb things," but that the Israel lobby advocates dumb things counter to the long-term interests of Israel and peace. And it truly is astonishing that a U.S. senator would be in such hot water for stating that he is an American, not an Israeli senator.
Even though Hagel didn't directly answer Graham's questions, just the fact that this is being brought up is a huge step in the right direction in opening up public discourse. To say that the Israeli lobby, mainly AIPAC, influences and intimidates Congress and the U.S. president to support aggressive and hawkish Israeli policies that a significant majority of Jews — both American and Israeli — oppose is simply documented fact.
Although Hagel's confirmation hearing today was filled with screeching hawks demanding the less hawkish Hagel swear loyalty to the permanent warfare state, it is an encouraging sign to see some dissent from the bipartisan foreign policy consensus. This should help encourage a healthier public debate, even if there isn't much change in policy.
And if the likes of McCain and Graham don't like Hagel, he must be doing something right.