Much of the political world was transfixed yesterday by the grilling Chuck Hagel received by the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the consensus seems to be that the Defense Secretary nominee generally failed to impress. In terms of practical impact, I'm not sure it matters -- the confirmation hearing didn't appear to change many minds on the merits of Hagel's qualifications.
What struck me as more interesting than Hagel's halting answers were the quality of the questions, or in this case, the lack thereof.
The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran made this observation last night, doing a word count on the hearing transcript. Some, including Jesse Berney, have argued persuasively that these can at times be misleading, but after watching much of the lengthy hearing, I think Chandrasekaran's point has real value -- it shows, at a minimum, where the senators focused their attention when evaluating the nominee for Secretary of Defense.
Indeed, going through the transcript, one might be tempted to believe there are only three countries on the planet -- the United States, Israel, and Iran -- and that Iran poses some kind of existential threat to America's future.
Al Qaeda wasn't deemed important, nor was North Korea. China was brought up only a handful of times, and the use of drones wasn't mentioned at all.
In Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the next Pentagon chief, Afghanistan -- the country where American troops are fighting an active, hot war right now -- was largely treated as an afterthought.
And why did the hearing play out like this?
No More Mister Nice Blog's Steve M. had an argument that resonated with me: "The discussion, like most discussions in Washington, centered on what Republicans wanted to talk about, and what they wanted to talk about was -- exclusively -- whatever they thought they could use for political advantage.... [N]obody talked about Mali because Republicans haven't yet figured out a way to use Mali to hurt Democrats. Republicans can no longer use Al Qaeda and Afghanistan to hurt Democrats, because it's not Bush's first term anymore, so Al Qaeda and Afghanistan barely came up.... On foreign policy, the Republican Party was once dominated by isolationists, and later by realists and by interventionists -- but now the party is dominated by Republicanists. It's all about politics. Republicans have no greater concern."
After yesterday, it's hard to draw any other conclusion. Yesterday wasn't about an exploration of the future of U.S. military policy, Hagel's record, the Obama administration's agenda for the next four years, the ongoing war, or the limits and scope of military force. It was about proxy fights, talking points, and scoring points.
Even when executing this strategy, GOP members of the committee pursued Hagel with the same questions about Iran and Israel, over and over again, in the clumsiest and most ham-fisted way possible. As Rachel noted on the show last night, we saw Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) "not seeming to know very much about what she was talking about" and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) "try a sort of like cable news-style stunt against Chuck Hagel that really fell flat."
In a big world with plenty of national security challenges, much of the Senate Armed Services Committee has adopted an exceedingly narrow view, which is unfortunate, and pursues this course in an often mindless, reactionary way, which is even more unfortunate.
Did Hagel dazzle the committee and its audience with crisp and commanding answers? No. Were his Republican inquisitors worse? Clearly, yes.