On the day he was nominated for the position of secretary of defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) sat for an interview with the Lincoln Journal-Star, a local paper in the state where he served for twelve years.
For weeks, as whispers of his likely nomination circulated in Washington, Hagel had taken a beating over his unorthodox positions, mainly on Israel. Critics brought up votes he had cast opposing tough unilateral sanctions against Iran, or petitions he had declined to sign, or isolated quotes he uttered in the course of more than a decade as a public figure.
Now, having finally been named for the job by President Barack Obama, it was Hagel's turn to respond. He did so with an unexpected twist: rather than say that his votes were misinterpreted, or his quotes out of context, he defended his positions as smarter policy -- and a superior way to show support for Israel.
There is "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israeli, not one vote that matters that hurt Israel," Hagel said in the interview.
"I didn't sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn't solve a problem," he continued, in reference to some of the letters pushed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington, D.C.-based pro-Israel lobbying group.
"How does that further the peace process in the Middle East?" Hagel said he asked himself. "What's in Israel's interest is to help Israel and the Palestinians find some peaceful way to live together."
As he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing on Thursday, the expectation was that Hagel would once again directly, if not unapologetically, confront the skeptics. After all, his first response had earned him plaudits from the many pro-Israel groups and officials who have since come to Hagel's defense, including the progressive group J-Street, and even one hardline Israeli ministry official. The blunt "truth-telling" that made him a lightning rod in the first place was seen by many as a leading asset for the Pentagon job.
Instead, Hagel took the safe route. Challenged on his positions, he demurred on the most pointed attacks, repeatedly claiming not to remember the letters he supposedly refused to sign, and renouncing the statements he gave in the past, even as they were misquoted back to him. “If I had a chance to edit a lot of things in my life, senator, I’d probably be fairly busy," he told Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) at one point.
It was a sleepy performance, one that critics called a confounding and seemingly unprepared mess. Allies, meanwhile, asserted that by taking a careful route, and avoiding any major gaffes, Hagel had successfully navigated an event that one close associate compared to a prison interrogation.
"The only reason to choose Hagel was to challenge the mindless hawkishness that still dominates so much beltway foreign policy debate," wrote Peter Beinart, in a column for the blog Open Zion. "If they didn’t want to have that argument, the administration should have chosen someone safe."
But in the end, it was the performance of the senators on the panel -- inflexible and sometimes downright dogmatic -- that seemed to prove the cynics right. Searching for any variance on his positions on Israel, any nuance whatsoever, the committee, or at least its Republican members, seemed to be on a crusade to grind down Hagel's edge. In order to ascend to higher office, the senators seemed to say, a non-traditional foreign policy thinker had no choice but to renounce his unconventional thinking.
"It was a circus," said Matt Duss, a Middle East policy analyst at the progressive Center for American Progress. "Hagel was, it seemed, amazingly unprepared, and the senators seemed uninterested in asking any real questions."
Duss pointed to a line of questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who demanded that Hagel defend his claim, made in a 2006 interview, that the Israel lobby "intimidates" members of Congress and causes them to "do dumb things."
Graham, who was slightly butchering the quote -- Hagel said that the lobby sometimes does "dumb" things, not the senators -- followed up by asking Hagel to "name one" senator who had been intimidated in that way. Hagel could not, though it would have been fair and, perhaps, a bit comedic, if he had pointed the finger at himself at that moment.
"It was this ridiculous attempt to play gotcha on these half-remembered, sort of out-of-context quotes without wanting to actually delve down into what the policy implications are," Duss said. "The idea that special interest groups intimidate legislators should be uncontroversial."
Another senator who developed an provocative line of Israel-related questions around imprecise quotes was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who asked Hagel to defend a statement from the time of Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon, in which he supposedly argued that Israel's "sickening slaughter" of the militant group Hezbollah should be stopped.
In fact, Hagel had been denouncing the "sickening slaughter" on both sides of the battle, and his quote more fairly referred to the killing of innocent civilians in both countries, not the combatants.
But Cruz's campaign for uniformity did not end there: he peppered Hagel with questions about his associations with former American diplomat Charles Freeman, a notorious figure in some hardline pro-Israel circles, and tried to compel Hagel to concur that the killing of "innocent civilians" in Israel could not be equated with the deaths of Palestinians.
The line of questioning on Israel troubled some pro-Israel analysts, including Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote in a column for Bloomberg that the senators badly missed a chance to query Hagel on substantive components of his view on Israel.
And according to at least one former Israeli diplomat, Alon Pinkas, it risked introducing dangerous politicization into the U.S.-Israel alliance -- exactly what the senators claimed they were trying to avoid.
"When Israel is mentioned 166 times and China 5, you know something is distorted and wrong and cannot seriously reflect serious foreign policy priorities," Pinkas told HuffPost in an email. "When Israel is excessively and crudely inserted into an internal US process or debate, it by definition politicizes Israel as an issue and politicizes support for Israel. It was blatant during the Presidential debates, but in the Hagel Senate hearing it reached new highs."
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