Chuck Hagel and his Republican mates

The Republican attack on Obama's pick for Secretary of Defence is a particularly blatant example of why the outcome of the 2012 US election was so important for the world. Second term Obama will not be perfect, but the alternative would have been catastrophic.  

Having watched the US Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for America’s next Secretary of Defence, and having watched the political spinning on the weekend talk shows that followed, it is clear that a core of the Republican Party cares more about its own vanity than the direction - politically, fiscally or militarily - of the United States, let alnoe the rest of us.

No surprises in that perhaps. The key goal of politicians is usually to be re-elected first and then deal with what’s supposedly in the interests of those who elect them.

The ‘hearing‘ - and I use that word advisedly because little hearing was actually done - provided an extraordinary insight into why the United States has its reputation of pulling the trigger first and asking questions later...until Obama began to weave his doctrine of doing some talking first.

Let’s be clear that Obama’s drone reputation is ugly, mercenary, and highly likely in breach of international law and convention. It is fodder for a whole other debate which the UN inquiry into drones, and a case before the British courts regarding British complicity in US drone attacks will contribute to significantly.

Meanwhile, back at the hearing, the petty, partisan, and parochial antics of the Republican members in their grilling of Republican Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel was the stuff of time warps.

There was no doubt Hagel’s was not a stellar performance. In fact at times watching him was excruciating as he mumbled and grasped for acceptable explanations of things he has said in the past.  Many of his comments - but not all - were taken out of context, or twisted in a politically expedient manner in order to make the former friend of his Republican inquisitors to be all at once a terrorist-appeasing, pro-Iran, gay-bashing, anti-Semite. The latter of course is long the cardinal sin in US politics, even though it is a term so bandied about for anyone who dares question Israel’s policies that it has long lost its true bite. 

Hagel ‘earned’ the epithet for once calling for an end to the slaughter involved in Israel’s bloody 2006 incursion into southern Lebanon.  The call was for both sides to stop the killing.  He also called for Israeli leaders to step up in the manner of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in order to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.  

There was precious little sign during Thursday’s harrowing hearing that Hagel had been prepared for the arrogant, self-serving and selective outrage, or the blatantly politicised character assassination fired at him from his Republican team mates, and in particular his former Vietnam veteran colleague John McCain.

This is the McCain who is not the President of the United States, not the Commander in Chief, but clearly delusional about his power and influence. Or perhaps he is so sore at losing to Bush and then Obama that he makes it a personal mission to destroy anyone those two Presidents have nominated. Sure he didn’t eviscerate John Kerry...but remember Susan Rice? 

McCain was once the darling of the media because he was so accessible and usually made for good copy. Now he’s a bitter, angry old man who could not hide his personal issues with Hagel (and yes, the coverage indicates he is still good copy, albeit negative). McCain can’t seem to bear the fact that Hagel will likely be not only the first Vietnam vet to be appointed to the job, but the first enlisted American to be Secretary for Defence. Perhaps it has something to do with Hagel not endorsing McCain in his run for the presidency?  

And so McCain, blatantly avoiding any of the judgements involved in the war of choice the US waged in Iraq, wanted only a re-litigation of the 2007 troop surge which was designed to bring an end to the war. Forget how the war started. McCain wanted an admission via a yes or no answer that Hagel’s questioning of the value of the surge was right or wrong. “Yes or no”, the angry old man demanded. Hagel refused that format, resulting in McCain declaring that the record would show Hagel refused to answer the question. Hagel did no such thing. It is just that he was not going to play the petty little political game. He at least remained resolute to his conviction that the issue of the war in Iraq or the surge to try and end that war and cost an additional 1200 American lives, was more complicated than McCain’s stupid game. He sat in pretty solid company in this, given Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the majority of Americans had all opposed that 2007 surge.

You’d have thought McCain and Hagel, two men who were injured in war, saw the horrors of war, and were decorated for their bravery in war would agree that waging war should not be taken lightly. Nah. McCain was after justification for the United States Waging war on Iraq. Hagel was not taking that bait.   

Other Republicans twisted various remarks about Palestinian terrorists and Israeli war crimes, and the influence of the Israel lobby in Washington (a lobby Hagel had erroneously referred to as the Jewish lobby), in order to trap Hagel into agreeing with some outrageous statements made by others - not him. Hagel refused.

The aim was to prove Hagel inept in the judgement department. The poor judgement was from McCain & Co., and it was screamingly obvious they were not interested in Hagel’s answers, nor were they interested in the current issues a Defence Secretary would have to deal with - budget cuts, cyber-terrorism, the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, the continuing menace of Al Qaeda, and what about Mali? Egypt? Algeria?

No. The neo-con Republican members of this committee were hell bent on a character assassination by way of ‘proving’ anti-semitism and military weakness. Apparently you are an anti-Semite if you don’t want to bomb Iran - something McCain has been baying for to the point he even set the “bomb bomb Iran” line to a tune of the Beach Boys, and was filmed doing so.

Howzat for judgement?

Hagel is highly likely to get the job. The incumbent Leon Panetta has gone public with a full endorsement of Hagel’s abilities, judgement and character. Panetta added his dismay at the blatant politics on display at a hearing in which Republicans were completely disinterested in any focus on defence issues for 2013 and beyond. 

Panetta paid tribute to Hagel’s ability to recognise that the United States faces a very new and ever changing world, particularly, but not solely in the Middle East.

Together with Joe Biden’s approach to the Iranians for bilateral talks on the nuclear issue (and the positive Iranian response if the talks are to be authentic), the world will be much better off with the likes of Hagel than bitter old warmongers trying desperately to justify their previous failures.