Hagel hearing heavy on theater, short on heft

Senators focus on Israel and Iran while spending little time discussing the coming budget disaster and big money weapons programs.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from both sides of the aisle used few of their questions to the next likely defense secretary on the subjects that will dominate most of his time at the Pentagon. Instead, the senators grilled former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb, on his stance on Iran, his support of Israel, and whether the Iraq surge was successful.

Senator, how about the trillion dollar next generation fighter program that has one variant grounded and a testing regimen still running behind?

No, lets spend more time talking about the Iron Dome and how well it did protecting Israel.

Senator, what about the $52 billion you might have to cut from the Pentagon’s budget in a 7-month span before you even have a chance to set the picture of your family on your desk?

Sure, sequestration was briefly mentioned during Thursday’s hearing, but more time and theatrics were spent dissecting an interview Hagel did with Al Jazeera four years ago with  Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggesting that Hagel’s responses to callers’ questions promoted anti-American propaganda.

From the beginning of the confirmation hearing that started at 9:30 a.m. and didn’t end until Sen. Carl Levin slammed his gavel at 5:49 p.m., Republicans remained focused on Hagel’s record on Israel and Iran.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spent his time debating with Hagel whether the Iraq surge was effective. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, had said in the public debates over the surge that it would be one of the greatest blunders in the country’s history since the Vietnam War. McCain ordered Hagel to give him a yes or no answer until finally conceding and listening to Hagel’s explanation of why he lobbied against the surge.

Hagel is certainly not blameless in the eight hour marathon of repeating the same questions without covering much new ground. In the few times a senator did ask a pointed question about the water contamination at Camp Lejeune, N.C., or the next generation Ohio-class submarine program, he provided vague answers or asked for more time to receive more information.

That’s not the point of these hearings, after all. It’s all about serving and making sure the nominee does not put his foot in his mouth. Hagel got close to tasting his toe nails when he said he supported President Obama’s policy of containing Iran. He quickly corrected that statement.

Nominees very rarely make it to a confirmation hearing unless the White House has counted the votes and knows he or she will pass through the Senate gauntlet. After reaffirming his support for Israel and distancing himself from proposed engagements with Iran, it appears that Hagel will maintain the necessary support he needs from the Democrats to pass through the Senate.

If so, it will certainly be the last time he’s so rarely grilled on specific weapons programs to each one of those senators states. And it’s likely to be the fewest mentions of the Joint Strike Fighter, Ground Combat Vehicle or Littoral Combat Ship that he’ll hear in any of his future hearings.