Tag: nomination

The Hagel Hearings: Congressional Politics at Its Worst

The confirmation hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon are mercifully over. His wobbly performance earned derision among neoconservatives, but he responded as they intended to an interrogation that was all about politics, not policy. 

As I have noted before, Hagel is under fire because he disputed neoconservative nostrums to speak unpleasant truths to the Republican Party. He was an orthodox conservative, including on foreign policy. However, he was an Eisenhower, not a Dubya, Republican: Hagel criticized the debacle in Iraq, urged negotiation to forestall Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and backed reductions in today’s bloated military budget. General turned President Dwight Eisenhower could not have put it better. 

But this enraged a GOP that has turned perpetual war into its most important foreign policy plank. Hence the ludicrous attempt to paint him as an anti-Semite. Only slightly less dishonest was the performance of Hagel’s Republican interlocutors in the Senate, who asked the sort of questions which could not be honestly answered without wrecking the political façade behind which legislators on both sides of the aisle hide. His performance was disappointing, but far more striking is the fact that the uber-hawks who badgered him over every past statement exhibited little interest in exploring the most important challenges facing America. 

Consider the analysis of questions from Rosie Gray and Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed.  They counted 166 questions about Israel—an important ally, but more important than every other ally combined? There were 144 questions about Iran. No one wants Tehran to build nukes, but U.S. intelligence does not believe Iran has an active weapons program and there is no evidence that the Iranian government cannot be deterred, as were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Surely there are options short of war. And is Iran that much more important than Afghanistan, where Americans continue to die, which rated only 20 questions? Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) fixated on Iraq, an invasion that should never have been launched, irrespective of the impact of the “surge.” And from which, if he hadn’t noticed, U.S. troops have been withdrawn. 

Nothing else received serious attention at the hearings. Not how to adjust America’s foreign policy to reflect inevitable Pentagon budget cuts, since Washington no longer can afford to police the globe. Not China, including the worrisome possibility of war between Japan and China over worthless islands in the Sea of Japan. Not North Korea and the enduring challenge of dealing with the world’s most malign actor.  

Not Europe, which continues to under-invest in the military while relying on America for its defense. Not Africa, where the U.S. is steadily being drawn into more conflicts. Not Russia, which, despite the difficult bilateral relationship, has been helpful in Afghanistan and Iran. Not Venezuela, where the possible death of Hugo Chavez could open up opportunities for reform and engagement with America.

And the neoconservatives claim to be serious about international issues and military capabilities. 

Chuck Hagel is eminently qualified to be Secretary of Defense. As my colleague Chris Preble has noted, Hagel’s thinking is mainstream and noncontroversial. Obviously, one can disagree with him on particular issues, such as the possibility of nuclear disarmament.  However, the president still will make the ultimate decisions. Hagel will bring a fresh perspective to administration discussions of foreign and military policy. That is reason enough to welcome him to the Pentagon. 

Chuck Hagel Is Not Controversial

Chuck Hagel’s most vocal and persistent opponents failed to block his nomination to be the next secretary of defense, and most observers predict that he will be confirmed, despite additional unknown persons having spent untold sums to block his path to the Pentagon.

The most outrageous and unsubstantiated charges that were invented against the decorated Vietnam veteran and former senator have been demolished, but not before they crowded out a serious discussion of our national security priorities. 

Reports from his meetings with senators in recent weeks suggest that Hagel’s answers during Thursday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee will fit well within the boundaries of what the Beltway foreign policy elite deem acceptable. Chuck Hagel is not as controversial as he was made out to be, and the foreign policy consensus is likely to hold. 

I believed—and still believe—that Hagel will be a good secretary of defense, because he seems generally disinclined to support foolish wars. But he is no peacenik and he’s no radical. He may question assumptions here and there, or give President Obama honest advice that he might not want to hear. But the odds are long against Chuck Hagel being a truly transformative SecDef. 

First, the secretary of defense does not set the nation’s foreign policy; the president does. And on almost every subject where Hagel is—or was—viewed as controversial, President Obama has hewed to the establishment line. Obama expanded the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, even though he never seemed to believe that the so-called surge would work. He intervened in Libya, and reserves the right to do so elsewhere, without so much as a wave to the Congress. Obama has proved equally disinterested in congressional oversight (or any other oversight, for that matter), when it comes to assassinating suspected terrorists—including U.S. citizens—at will. On nuclear weapons, Hagel’s past statements in favor of downsizing the arsenal line up with Obama’s—and are similar to almost every other president before him, including Ronald Reagan. Finally, ahead of his hearing Hagel deftly associated himself with the president, and the status-quo, by explaining that the “window is closing” for diplomacy with Iran. 

The second factor in the way of a Hagelian transformation—were he so inclined—is the military-industrial complex. David Ignatius observed that Hagel likes to think of himself as an Eisenhower Republican, but he will have a devil of a time reining in the MIC that Ike warned about. It was difficult enough for Robert Gates to sell modest spending restraint (not actual cuts), and Leon Panetta was disinclined to even pretend, favoring instead the threat of defense cuts to cow Republicans into supporting higher taxes. Hagel has an even greater hill to climb because his predecessors wanted the public to believe that they had already trimmed the fat. By implication, any further reductions will cut into the military’s flesh and bones. 

In other words, additional cuts would require a rethinking of the military’s core missions, and might even force U.S. leaders to embark on a serious effort to shift and shed burdens from U.S. troops and U.S. taxpayers to wealthy, stable allies who benefit from global peace and security, but contribute little to the cause. 

But the president would have to lead such a foreign policy shift, and Barack Obama has shown no enthusiasm for such an undertaking. Given the interests aligned to preserve the status quo, it is clear that it will take much more than one truly committed reformer in the Pentagon to effect meaningful change in our national security strategy. 

All that said, I am happy that Hagel appears to have survived one of the nastiest nomination battles in recent memory, and I hold out hope, as Justin Logan wrote earlier this month, that his ability to prevail will encourage other aspiring leaders to abandon their fear of the small and shrinking pro-war faction. 

Stevens Retirement Ill-timed for Dems

The retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens at the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, and the coming nomination and confirmation process, will doubtless further complicate and delay the Obama administration’s already complicated agenda during this mid-term election year. And the timing cannot be good news for Democrats running for reelection, because the process will serve to highlight their understanding of the Constitution as a document authorizing all but unlimited government in a year in which, thanks to the Tea Party movement, the Constitution is likely to have a prominent place in reelection debates.

Regarding a replacement for Justice Stevens, the nominee will almost certainly come from the Democratic Party’s liberal ranks. As a result, the ideological complexion of the Court is not likely to change, since Justice Stevens, especially in recent years, has been the most reliable liberal vote on the Court, whether on abortion, campaign finance, gun rights, affirmative action, or several other hot-button issues. As the press reviews those decisions over the coming weeks and months, therefore, controversy over the Court will be in the air, adding to what already promises to be a very political year.

Putting “Holds” on Hold

Recent weeks have witnessed considerable media attention on a fairly obscure Senate practice: that of Senators placing a “hold” on a nomination.  Holds are essentially a method for Senators to tell the Majority Leader that if the Leader were to try to move a nomination by unanimous consent, that Senator would object on the Senate floor.

Much of the attention has unsurprisingly come from Democrats, who see the use of holds as obstructing President Obama’s ability to get in place his preferred personnel.  Perhaps getting the most attention was Senator Richard Shelby’s placing a hold on 70 some nominations (full disclosure: I spent seven years working for Shelby).

What is missed in the debate over holds is whether the Senate should be moving nominations by unanimous consent in the first place.  President Obama’s supporters contend that his nominees deserve an up or down vote.  Yet that is exactly what is required by a hold: an up or down vote.  Holds do not have to be honored by the Majority Leader (else why doesn’t someone just place a hold on health care?).  In fact, nominations are privileged motions, meaning the Majority Leader can bring up a nomination for debate and vote at any time.   

Moving a nomination (or even legislation) by unanimous consent all but guarantees that the nomination in question will receive zero deliberation or debate by the full Senate.  Whether a particular position is subject to Senate confirmation is almost completely up to Congress.  So if Congress decides that a position is important enough to demand the “advice and consent” of the Senate, then one would assume that such a position would also merit deliberation and debate by the Senate.  In passing so many nominations (and legislation) by unanimous consent, the Senate fails in its responsibilities. 

Congress finds itself in this bind because of its own doing.  In desiring to have government intrude in some many aspects of our lives, Congress has decided that thousands of political appointees are needed to run those intrusions.  But with so many appointees subject to confirmation, the Senate has no choice by to move nominations without debate for deliberation, for there is not enough time in the day to do so, especially when the Senate prefers to sending its time on grand policies, rather than the business of simply governing.

The solution is not to get rid of holds.  The solution is to reduce the involvement of government in our lives, so that the Senate does not have to process thousands of nominations every year.