The hailstorm of controversy around the appointment of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as the new secretary of defense, having long since passed into the realm of hysteria, became a different sort of hysterical this week with the revelation that one of the most sensational charges against the apostate Iraq War backer began as a thoroughly misunderstood joke. Which is funny enough, I suppose, until you consider the deep dysfunctionality which this entire episode is revealing.
While the melodrama around Hagel continues during the latest congressional vacation -- not that he won't be confirmed, because he will, as I discussed here at the end of last week -- major national security issues are playing out this week affecting relations with China (reportedly the center of massive cyber-attacks here and around the world), burgeoning nuclear power North Korea, the Afghan War and NATO.
All these things and more have gone by the boards while the tragicomic Hagel confirmation played out.
See if your eyesight is good enough to discern any consideration of cyber-attacks in the increasingly notorious word cloud of last month's U.S. Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing on defense secretary-designate Chuck Hagel. Hint: Even Clark Kent wouldn't find it. See if you can find much of anything other than the dominant topic of Israel, and its closely aligned topic Iran.
A new report, published the other day in the New York Times, the Guardian, and other newspapers around the world, identifies a unit of China's People's Liberation Army, operating out of Shanghai, as being behind cyber-attacks around the world.
That includes the hacking and ransacking of the New York Times, which occurred when the paper was preparing a story on how the family of the PRC's premiere, Wen Jiabao, amassed billions of dollars.
You'd think that China, America's frenemy, a super-power in the making and a proximate cause of the big geopolitical pivot underway to the rising Asia Pacific region, would be a major topic for senators concerned with geopolitics and national security. And you'd be wrong about that. (Here's an archive of my pieces on the pivot, one of the most important stories of the early 21st century, which still gets little notice in our media.)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who thought he was retiring to his California Central Coast walnut farm -- off to deal with "a different set of nuts," as he put it -- is in Brussels for the NATO defense minister meeting thanks to the Senate Republican filibuster-that-isn't-a-real-filibuster of Chuck Hagel.
The main topic of the Brussels confab? The winding down of the Afghan War, where we have tens of thousands of troops in the field. Which oddly was barely mentioned in Hagel's Senate confirmation hearing. Or discussed in all the controversy around his appointment.
Meanwhile, it turns out that one of the dumbest charges against defense secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, that he secretly took money from a group called "Friends of Hamas" -- which, as should be obvious, does not exist, as if any senator would speak before such a group if it did -- began as an obvious joke which turned into a charge the next day in the far right mediasphere.
This is just pathetic, but par for the course.
A new Gallup Poll survey indicates that alarm about North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs is very significant. The difference being that North Korea actually has a nuclear weapon, of a sort, but most of the official alarm is about Iran.
Intriguingly, given the massive preponderance of Israel/Iran questions at the recent Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel, roughly the same number of people -- just over half for each -- think that Islamic fundamentalists and the rise of China are threatening. And concern about potential conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is declining.
This sure isn't what is being reflected in the alleged debate over Hagel. The only good thing is it will be over soon.
As I expected, Senator John McCain signaled an impending end to the conservative Republican blockage of Hagel. McCain and his buddy Senator Lindsey Graham (anxious to preempt a far right primary challenge), appearing on separate Sunday chat shows, said that the blockade of Hagel's appointment will end after the latest congressional vacation.
"No, I don't believe he's qualified," McCain told NBC's Meet the Press. "But I don't believe that we should hold up his nomination any further." Regarding McCain's view of Hagel's qualifications: Back when Hagel was a national co-chairman of McCain's first presidential campaign, and for several years after, McCain said he would make a fine secretary of defense. They fell out over the Iraq War, as I may have mentioned once or twice.
Hagel has long been backed by the most eminent Republican experts in geopolitics and national security, including a host of former national security advisors and secretaries of defense, state, and homeland security. Which, oddly, goes virtually unreported. Is this because of changes in journalism, increasingly a sharply ahistorical field in which awareness of the significance of, say, Colin Powell, appears to be on the decline? Is it because of an increasingly ADD culture? Is it both, and more?
Meanwhile, in yet another major area ignored by the Senate, the ongoing Afghan War, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in the wake of civilians deaths in another NATO airstrike, declared that no Afghan forces are allowed to call up U.S. airstrikes. (U.S. policy on its own is to avoid air strikes unless needed for self-defense.) He also urged the U.S. and its allies to accelerate its already accelerated withdrawal schedule.
It turns out also that we need another appointee to run NATO, with just-returned Afghan War commander Marine General John Allen having stepped aside in the wake of personal controversy around his e-mail relationship with Cent Comm socialite Jill Kelley.
Let's see, NATO, the biggest alliance we're part of, with massive questions about its future. You won't see that in the Senate word cloud, either, or part of the public "discussion."
The sad reality is that what can only laughingly be described as debate is more like an exercise in spitball.
If I were to write, for example, that I believe that we have an obligation to protect Israel, due to our failure to act against the Holocaust and on account of many centuries of anti-semitism, there are those who would attack me as a neocon. (I know this through experience.)
If I were to write that Israel, which may be its own worst enemy, is in grave danger of becoming an apartheid state, dangerously isolating itself even further in the world, there are those who would attack me as an anti-semite. (Even though Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, said it three years ago.) They've already done it with Hagel, and he may not have even said it.
The fact is that I believe both those things, and both beliefs run very much afoul of a sort of political correctness gone crazy. On the far left, the familiar PC variant in which Israel is viewed as simply beyond the pale, cause of all discord in the Arab world (not to mention convenient excuse). And now, far more worrisome in this country, because it's a view held by far more powerful people, another sort of political correctness on the right in which any criticism of the current government of Israel -- the most conservative in the nation's history -- is not only not acceptable but grounds for the most vicious attacks.
Incidentally, speaking of that government which is not to be criticized, Israel's national election was on January 22. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose party lost a quarter of its seats, is still struggling to pull together a new governing coalition a month later.
Obviously Israelis are free to criticize that government without being called anti-semites. They do it all the time. They just took away nearly a dozen of its seats in the Knesset.
Hagel's no anti-semite. He's just impolitic at times in how he puts things, as one would expect of a somewhat gruff Vietnam War sergeant who enlisted in the Army while the offspring of the best and brightest who conceived the Vietnam War were enjoying their deferments. And while the architects of the Iraq War were coming up conveniently lame, halt, or, let's say, otherwise engaged.
The hysteria around his appointment shows how dysfunctional the Washington political and media system has become.
I wonder if the man who appointed him wasn't counting on that all along.
There's a lot of definitional work to be done in the aftermath of all this.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.