A prospective Defense Secretary who can't even defend himself. That was the unfortunate impression left by Chuck Hagel at this week's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The most charitable thing you can say about the former Nebraska Republican Senator's stumbling, bumbling, defensive performance was that, like all good generals, Hagel picks fights only when he occupies terrain of his own choosing. And this week's confrontation with former Republican colleagues John McCain and Lindsey Graham as they peered down on him from the dais like a pack of hyenas surveying a raw piece of meat, was not the optimal place to give battle.
The word from the White House is that the President's people were disappointed Hagel was not more aggressive or combative in pushing back against the bullying he got from McCain, Graham and Texas Tea Party newcomer Ted Cruz, whose insulting and badgering inquisition of the witness may have set a new low for Republican bad behavior.
But I am with Daily Beast's Peter Beinart. I blame Team Obama for this. The only reason for choosing Senator Hagel to begin with -- a vintage Vietnam War veteran and decorated "grunt" -- was "to challenge the mindless hawkishness that still dominates so much Beltway foreign policy debate."
Yet, when Hagel had the chance to challenge the unsportsmanlike conduct he got from McCain on the wisdom of the Iraq "surge" -- or Graham on the power and influence of the Israeli Lobby -- Hagel looked as if he was taking one for Team Obama, ducking out on the fight, or surrendering too quickly, which is an altogether too common feature of the Obama White House in the eyes of many concerned liberals.
The tragedy, as Beinart notes, is that Hagel did not want for lack of good arguments.
In response to McCain's repeated badgering, Hagel might have asked why McCain thought the surge had been worth the 1,200 American lives it cost, said Beinart. Better yet, he could have reminded McCain that the Iraq War began in 2003 with an invasion on a fool's errand to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction, not in 2006 with the surge, and so was the Senator from Arizona still unrepentant about championing one of the biggest blunders in American foreign policy?
On Iran, said Beinart, Hagel could have told his GOP tormenters that all options should be on the table, but all options means more than military force and includes the pursuit of a diplomatic deals as well.
"He could have explained that just because we reserve the right to take military action does not mean we should ignore the numerous former military and intelligence officials, in both America and Israel, who warn that military action could produce a horrific regional war, strengthen the Iranian regime, and ultimately make an Iranian nuclear weapon more likely, not less," said Beinart.
And finally, said Beinart, when bullied by Lindsey Graham to provide one piece of evidence that the Senate had acted stupidly because it had been intimidated by the "Jewish Lobby," Hagel could have pointed to the hearings themselves.
After all said Beinart, if Hagel's inquisitors were not so interested in staying on AIPAC's good side, why then did the hearing feature 136 mentions of Israel, 135 of Iran, but only 27 references to Afghanistan where more than 60,000 US servicemen and women are currently fighting and dying?
"And instead of robotically restating his love of the Jewish state," says Beinart, "Hagel could have said what many Israeli top security officials do: that Israel's policy of subsidizing West Bank settlement causes immense Palestinian suffering and existentially threatens the Jewish state, and that ignoring that fact does Israel no favors."
But Hagel said none of these things, laments Beinart. And so by "neutering" himself, by refusing to "speak from the gut" and by displaying "ideological incoherence" in what appeared like an effort to avoid a fight with his former colleagues, Hagel instead gave right-wingers like McCain, Graham, and Cruz the scent of political fear that let them think they can push him around -- and by extension, push the Obama Administration around until it caves on the most hawkish line on Israel and on other conflicts around the world.
It's Hagel's retreat on Israel I find the most problematic. At some point, and to further world peace, the Obama Administration must put Bibi Netanyahu and his right wing Israeli coalition in their place. They must do so by reminding Israel who in this "historic friendship" is boss.
"Netanyahu has long exuded an extraordinary confidence that he could make the American government bend to his will," says Beinart, noting that after Netanyahu's first meeting with Bill Clinton as prime minister, Clinton remarked in bewilderment, "He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do what he requires."
Netanyahu's arrogant assumption that, as Beinart says, "when push comes to shove, US leaders can be moved in the direction he wants them to go," was on full display before last fall's election when Netanyahu traveled to Washington uninvited, petulantly complained of not getting an audience with the President, and then, in the view of many, was openly campaigning for the President's challenger while on American soil.
The real danger is that this same Netanyahu -- fresh off his reelection victory, presiding over the only nuclear armed country in the Middle East, and governing an expansionist power spurred on to claim new territory by right wing fear-mongering about existential threats coming from Iran or the Palestinians -- might miscalculate in his hubris and launch a unilateral, unannounced attack against Iran after presuming he has the world's only superpower in his pocket.
Maybe Hagel and the White House thought Hagel had the Senate's confirmation in the bag and so the wisest course of action was not to rock the boat. Maybe they also thought Republicans would surely hang themselves if Hagel just gave them enough rope and hung in there while McCain, Graham and Cruz delivered what Beinart called their "bloviating, tendentious monologues."
That might have been good political tactics. But it was lousy strategy because an important strategic chance was squandered by Hagel's passivity as the Obama White House lost a golden opportunity to look Netanyahu and the Israeli Lobby in the eye and show them that this administration, at least, is not afraid of them.