The Senate Armed Services Committee agreed yesterday to postpone a vote until next week on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense. This move by the Committee is a standard courtesy move which occurs when members make this type of request but there may well be something else developing here which is not so obvious. The request was made by around 25 Republican Senators, but one is beginning to wonder if the Obama Administration and maybe Hagel himself have begun to consider whether they need to find a way to maneuver Hagel out of the designee seat and go back to Nebraska.
Having previously argued here that while Hagel’s previous opinions, specifically regarding Israel and the Jewish lobby were stupid, they did not evidence anti-Semitism; I stand by that position. At the same time I suggested that Presidents are entitled to surround themselves with a cabinet that best reflects their own philosophy and would enable them to manage their agenda best vis-a-vis Congress, the American people, and the world. In the case of Cabinet members, Congress really has the least to worry about Cabinet appointees since it has complete policy oversight as well as budgetary scrutiny over all Government Departments and Agencies. A Secretary of Defense Hagel would not ever be very far outside of Congress purview.
At this point, however, the Hagel nomination must be troubling more than Senate Republicans on the Armed Services Committee who may want to score points against the President—even if it means defeating one of their own former party and institution members. This is especially so –baring a filibuster—they would have little hope of blocking his confirmation. It seems clear that there must be voices in the White House itself and even some Senate Democrats who again have reviewed Hagel’s testimony and begun to truly recoil at his performance.
The problem they are facing is not over his responses on Israel and Iran—which were strictly rote learned—but over his lack of preparation in his weak and embarrassing responses about weapons’ systems, defense strategies, and nuclear weapons. It was not that he and his former colleague John McCain made an ugly scene of it, rather it was that Hagel’s conduct was not appropriate. He demonstrated almost disdain for the confirmation process and even disrespect for the committee. (A colleague suggested to me that Hagel was as unprepared for even some of the most obvious questions from the Committee that it reminded him of how unprepared Obama appeared in his own sloppily prepared first presidential debate.)
The week’s delay may in fact be good for Hagel as well as the White House. The President does not want to see Hagel go down the way Susan Rice disappeared. He also does not want to face a filibuster threat; even if the Republicans deny it beforehand or never really intend to employ it. The Senate Democrats need their political power for the fight ahead and do not really want to go to the mat for a former Republican Senator—even if their President wants it.
This week is the time to find a way for Hagel to go away without a vote because it seems more and more that he indeed may not be competent to run the huge Defense bureaucracy nor clever enough to adequately contribute effectively to the serious strategic military issues that will shortly be on his plate.