Chuck Hagel Faces His Biggest Critics Today

Dashiell Bennett

Thursday in Washington could see the most contentious confirmation hearing of Barack Obama's presidency, as former Senator Chuck Hagel fights for his chance to be the next Secretary of Defense. At least seven of the 12 members on the Senate Armed Services Committee have expressed some reservations on Hagel's nomination and a few have stated outright that they plan to vote against him. That may not be enough to shut down his appointment, but it could lead to some fireworks today as the Republican committee members get their chance to challenge him directly. Unlike John Kerry, Hagel didn't make a lot of friends during his time in the Senate and will not get the benefit of a rubber-stamp coronation.

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So why do his haters want to keep Hagel—a brave enlisted man, a decorated veteran, and a former Senator like themselves—from running the Pentagon? Two reasons, really: Israel and Iran, two nations for which Hagel does not appear to share the appropriate level of concern.

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For Israel, the problem is that Hagel has in the past seemed indifferent, or worse, openly hostile to Israeli leaders and the "Jewish lobby," as he unfortunately referred to it supporters. With Iran, he hasn't been hostile enough, voting against sanctions several times as a Senator, and arguing that engagement with their government and "containment" of their nuclear program was the better course of action. Obviously, being insufficiently angry with Iran is another sign you don't care enough about Israel, but the intertwined issue of how Chuck Hagel feels about our Friends and our Enemies will make up the bulk of the questioning.

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Another matter of concern will Hagel's opinions about the future of the military. He's complained in the past about the "bloated" Armed Forces, and may look to shrink the defense budget rather than expand it—an almost blasphemous idea in the Armed Services committee, which has never had any problem giving our army more money. You can also expect a lot of questions about his priorities for war planning: fast, nimble, and computer-heavy or big, loud, and powerfully destructive?

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It doesn't even really matter that Hagel's most controversial comments happened years ago, or that Congress still controls his budget, or that not all Americans agree with the Republican approach to foreign policy. The hearing is as much about voicing official objections to the Obama administration's behavior as it about taking down Chuck Hagel. And even if they can't find out Hagel's mind, maybe they can't learn something about the President's?

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Because Democrats control the Senate and therefore the committee (and even most opposition members are inclined to defer to the president on political appointees) the odds are slim that Hagel will not become the next Secretary of Defense. That doesn't mean that doesn't mean the Senators who will grill him today can't make the rest of his morning—and the next four years—very uncomfortable.