For former Senator Hagel, it has not been smooth sailing to say the least. Despite his previous party affiliation of Republican, that corner has provided scant support, and one of his more pointed critics has been the new Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, with full display of his prosecutorial talents honed as the most experienced Solicitor General in the history of Texas. Lest one garner too much sympathy for the man on the stand, it is hard for even his top supporters to deny that Hagel's testimony was embarrassingly inept – but they do, with a well-practiced straight face.
Hagel and Cruz (Salon)
The peanut gallery that is the Morning Joe [Scarborough] Show on MSNBC (in case you missed it, and considering the size of its audience you likely did) were shocked – shocked – by the comment from Senator Cruz about how the Iranian regime had endorsed Hagel's nomination "formally and publicly". What followed was a synergism of increasing hyperbole (ably assisted by a bait and switch reference to remarks by Senator Inhofe, not Cruz) which amply demonstrated Mark Twain's observation that an amplified use of adjectives merely lessens whatever argument there may be. ("When you catch an adjective, kill it.") The panel begins its remarks in high gear, then tut-tuts and harrumphs its way around the table, increasing in centrifugal indignation.
Outrageous … over the line … grotesque … impugn … tea party … flummoxed … far right… outrageous … nasty … tea party … over the line … impugn … insulting … very far right … berating … disturbing … hard core tea party …
It was like a scene from Macbeth, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", and I am tempted to use its previous line. What wrapped it up in a neat little bow was the splenetic little man at the end, sputtering a challenge to Senator Cruz to have the "courage" to ask Senator Hagel about the day he "got the Bronze Star". "Okay, Ted. Line that one up, Baby!" Joe agrees about the Bronze Star, then says that Cruz is accusing Hagel of being a traitor ("… in effect", perhaps realizing how far over the top he has gone).
Before one gets spun up in these tirades, perhaps it would serve to know what one is talking about. The height of their dudgeon is lessened somewhat by the fact that Chuck Hagel never received a Bronze Star for his service in Viet Nam. (This is not to say that he didn't earn one, but that is an entirely different topic.) But more on that in a moment.
This bubbling frenzy of invective fails to take into account Cruz' entire body of work on the committee on the subject of Hagel's background. For that matter, they neglect to mention (nor will MSNBC leap to remind you) that the same Senator McCain, who is quoted in opposition to Senator Inhofe's remark, was blistering in his demand that Hagel explain his statement that the Iraq surge was the "most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Viet Nam", with Hagel repeatedly stumbling in his attempt to evade the answer. As for Cruz, he introduces his qualms about the sincerity of Hagel's foreign policy stances:
As a two-term senator and active participant in foreign policy discussions, Hagel repeatedly declined to support measures to crack down on state sponsors of terrorism, belittled the notion of using any means to prevent a nuclear Iran, advised US leaders to engage in direct negotiations with rogue nations and hostile terrorist groups, and expressed remarkable antagonism towards the longstanding US alliance with Israel. Since Hagel has been nominated to become Defense secretary, however, he's disavowed each one of these positions. . . .
Of course, anyone can change their mind on one particular issue; reasonable people do that all the time. However, when a nominee tries to disavow his past positions on virtually every foreign policy issue, all at the same time, it raises serious questions.
Cruz continues with some damning specifics, including Hagel's three votes against economic sanctions for Iran; his vote against naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, purveyor of weapons that have killed hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a terrorist group; his stated resistance to a military option to stop a nuclear-armed Iran; his refusal to recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations; and his public criticism on several occasions about our alliance with Israel.
But perhaps the moment that was most disconcerting to Hagel was when Cruz played a clip from an interview that Hagel gave to Al Jazeera television in 2009. Some internet sites have copied a portion of the interview but it is truncated, cut immediately after the specific part, which always gives me pause, whether the source is from the Left or Right, with a nagging doubt about politically-motivated editing. I have sought out and included, then, the entire first part of the interview so that the exchange can be seen in its entirety.
The clip that Cruz played before the committee hearing starts at about 8:47, in which Hagel agreed with a viewer who asked about the possibility of world disarmament "when the image of the US is that of the world's bully?" Hagel's reply is "Well, her observation is a good one and it's relevant. 'Yes' to her question. . . .", before sliding off to a paragraph of praise for Obama and Hillary Clinton working with the Russians on the disarmament issue. The interviewer, perhaps not believing his good luck with such a reply, follows up at about 10:01 when he states (not asks) that "Well, I mean, that brings us to the new [Obama] administration that is here in Washington. I think that perception of the United States being the bully in the world has come largely from what the previous [Bush] administration has done." So much for objective journalism, but this provides a second chance for Hagel to state his view, or to correct that of the interviewer, of the image of the United States as the world's "bully". Hagel's reply: "Oh, I think that's right." He then hedges a bit about our "seventh or eighth year of two long wars" being not entirely America's fault, but the "last administration misplayed a lot of the great goodwill that redounded" to the US after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. It doesn't really matter which administration he is criticizing, but here is a representative of the US government publicly denouncing his own country on a foreign (one might say enemy) network. Cruz nailed him on that, and Hagel's clumsy attempt to move on from it was a nadir of his inept testimony.
Now to the question about how Hagel's service as a soldier in Viet Nam somehow shields him from criticism. There is no doubt (as there is with John Kerry) that Hagel served well and honorably. Curiously, due to an Army clerical screw-up, he fought alongside his brother (in the 9th Infantry Division). On at least two occasions they saved each other's life, and Hagel was awarded two Purple Hearts for serious wounds – burns and life-threatening shrapnel. He also received an Army Commendation Medal for saving a wounded crewman of a burning APC while under fire, from whence he received his burns. (The medal seems thin gruel to me for such an act of heroism, but the military decorations system is, again, another subject entirely.) I salute him, as should we all, for his steadfast and courageous service, but the question as raised by the MSNBC panel among others is how should that service be rewarded?
There are those who wish to cash in on the glory, sometimes inflated, of one's military recognition. (I hasten to note that Hagel himself is not one of these.) A glowing recent example is John Kerry and the Swift Boat controversy, but one of the more egregious cases was Lyndon Johnson's stupefying Silver Star for sitting still in the back of an airplane when a Japanese fighter made a pass, while he "evidenced marked coolness". I grew up in the 1950s and one of the pet peeves of my father (God rest his soul) that I heard was any politician who advertized that he was veteran. My father would grumble that with 16 million Americans in uniform during World War II, with a draft, it was an unremarkable claim. Since that time, for a variety of reasons, it has taken on a far more significant meaning, but the underlying principle remains the same. Military service teaches (though there are too many exceptions) that one should advance by demonstrated merit. Whatever recognition one receives through a commendation is reward enough, but more important is the old-fashion notion that a good job is its own reward.
But Morning Joe and Hagel's other supporters keep pushing the notion that his military service is a distinct qualification in and of itself. I certainly don't understand it that way, and neither does Hagel, I suspect. There are any number of veterans with whom I would love to sit down and share a beer, and Chuck Hagel is certainly among them, but that doesn't mean that he or anyone else is necessarily qualified, politically or otherwise, for "a position of high trust and responsibility" because of service or sacrifice. The office of Secretary of Defense, or any other position for that matter, is not a consolation prize.