02/04/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

Is Chuck Hagel the Best We've Got?

I watched the entire eight hours of the Hagel confirmation hearing last week, a perk of being retired. I remembered Chuck Hagel as the courageous senator with good sense who had been tough and gritty enough to earn two purple hearts in Vietnam. What I saw last week was a different, and terribly disappointing, Hagel, someone for whom I would not advocate such an important position as Secretary of Defense.

The hearing was partisan and mean-spirited. Some of the questioning bordered on the idiotic. Nonetheless, Hagel failed to take advantage of the many openings offered him to either defend himself or to indicate new policy directions that might address the myriad problems facing national defense, especially with the specter of sequestration hanging over government. Hagel seemed ill prepared to the point where I have to assume that he really was unprepared. It did not seem merely a matter of nervousness, but, rather, that Hagel was incapable of thinking on his feet. Also, it would be shocking to think that Hagel has not thought about some of the problems facing the Pentagon for long enough to at least have something cogent to say, rather than to sound a high school kid on the first day of public speaking class.

Hagel was initially assaulted by John McCain, who insisted that Hagel give a yes-or-no answer to whether Hagel had been correct in opposing the surge in Iraq in 2007. Hagel tried to say that history would judge, not an unreasonable answer, but it did not prevent McCain from shrieking in Hagel's face like a fishwife, demanding that Hagel supply the one-word answer. What I found most troubling (other than McCain's behavior) was Hagel's failure to defend himself. Why not say that he was right, because the war was based on a lie, and because nothing done in that war ultimately accomplished anything of lasting value? Why not make McCain defend his own position, and explain what we had achieved that was worth over 4,000 American lives and tens of thousands of wounded?

Other senators, like Lindsey Graham, assaulted Hagel over his previous positions about dealing with Israel and Iran. The questions were not as unreasonable, but Hagel's approach was to quickly recant his past views in these situations and others. Suddenly, Hagel was fully ready to threaten Iran militarily over its nuclear weapons, a path he disdained in the past. Hagel would have to be ready to carry out administration policy, but this does not mean that Hagel had to disavow what many think is a dangerous course. Is one to believe that Hagel had undergone a metamorphosis from someone of consistently lousy judgment to someone with an epiphanic vision of the right answers to America's defense problems, answers that happened to match exactly with those of the committee members?

Virtually every senator asked Hagel if he would commit to support whatever defense project was in the district of the senator doing the questioning. Hagel mindlessly swore allegiance to every project. Even in an era when fiscal issues do not cast a pall over defense spending, Hagel's responses indicated a willingness to let dollars drive strategy, instead of the need to manage things the other way around. Why couldn't Hagel say that he would sit down with his service secretaries and chiefs, and his policy people, to figure out what missions the United States would have to service, and then plan what weapons systems best met those needs? Instead, he came off as a sycophant ready to say anything to secure committee votes. He said nothing at all about dollar problems that have direct impact on procurement, such as personal costs.

There were other issues as well, but the bottom line is that Mr. Hagel came off as a panderer who was ultimately willing to say anything he had to to get his nomination out of committee and on to the Senate floor, where he is likely to be approved by a basically party-line vote. He displayed no imagination, and the determination that made him a successful non-com in Vietnam was totally missing.

One might argue that, in order for Hagel to do good, he needs to secure the appointment. Maybe so, but does it not matter how one obtains that appointment? Once Hagel has surrendered the high ground, I'm hard pressed to see how he gets it back.