Senator John Cornyn’s CNN column this morning doesn’t exactly come as a shock. He’s been vocal about his opposition to former colleague Chuck Hagel’s nomination to Secretary of Defense ever since Barack Obama made it public. Unlike most of the media attention on Hagel’s comments on other topics, though, Cornyn focuses on the key issue — Hagel’s seeming indifference to one of the most dangerous threats facing the US at the moment:
One of the biggest foreign-policy challenges of Obama’s second term is preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — which means we need a defense secretary who understands the nature and magnitude of the Iranian threat. Based on his record, Hagel does not.
In July 2001, 96 U.S. senators voted to extend sanctions against Iran. Chuck Hagel was one of only two senators who voted against sanctions. A year later, he urged the Bush administration to support Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization.
Even more disturbing, Hagel voted against a 2007 measure that called for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be designated a terrorist group. (At the time, the IRGC was aiding and equipping Shiite militias that were murdering U.S. troops in Iraq.) A few weeks after this vote, Hagel sent a letter to President George W. Bush asking him to launch “direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks” with the Iranian government, which the State Department has labeled a state sponsor of terrorism every year since 1984. …
Finally, in his 2008 book, “America: Our Next Chapter,” Hagel appeared to suggest that the United States could live with a nuclear Iran, writing that “the genie of nuclear armaments is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.”
These comments and actions indicate that he does not fully appreciate the dangers of a nuclear Iran or the character of the Iranian regime. It is a regime that has effectively been at war with the United States since 1979 — a regime whose proxies (such as the terrorist group Hezbollah) have killed Americans in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. For that matter, Tehran was recently implicated in a plot to blow up a restaurant (and the Saudi ambassador) in our nation’s capital.
This is the argument I made in my column at The Week on Monday, too. While Hagel’s comments on James Hormel in 1998 were intemperate and rude, and his remarks about “the Jewish lobby” and not being an “Israeli Senator” just plain weird, the real issue is whether Hagel represents either a consensus view on national security or even the professed Obama administration view. In both cases, Hagel is way out on the fringe, especially on — but not limited to — Iran:
Hagel’s record on Iran may be even more suspect than in any other area. He has opposed sanctions on Iran since 2001, when he opposed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (which passed 96-2), intended to prevent funding for terrorism or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Five years later, with the Iranian nuclear program exposed, Hagel gave a speech in Pakistan declaring that “a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” On at least three subsequent occasions, Hagel voted against or blocked sanctions or terror designations on Iran, all of which enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
So the better question is why Obama chose Hagel, especially since Hagel’s statements on Iran contradict Obama’s — at least as President:
With that in mind, what kind of signal does a Hagel nomination as the steward of American military send? Supposedly, Obama had repented of his 2008 comment that Iran was “tiny” and didn’t pose a “serious threat” to the United States. He has tried to give the impression that he learned a lesson from the weak response to the Green Revolution in 2009, and that he supported tough sanctions and a strong effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program. By naming a sanctions skeptic who also opposes the only other option to stop Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction to run the Pentagon, the future of the U.S. effort to contain Iran looks very much in doubt.
That should have supporters of Israel more worried than a remark about a “Jewish lobby” and a gay ambassador. In fact, it should have all of us worried about more than just Chuck Hagel, too, and prompt questions about Barack Obama’s intentions on Iran and security in the Middle East.
Those are the questions Senators of both parties should raise during Hagel’s confirmation hearings — assuming he ever gets to that stage. If he does manage to make it to a confirmation hearing, Politico’s Jonathan Allen and Darren Samuelsohn warn that Hagel’s lack of people skills during his two terms in the Senate may come back to bite him:
Policy aside, Hagel’s bedeviled by his own abrasive personality. In a chamber known for back-patting and elbow-rubbing, the former Nebraska senator mostly rubbed people the wrong way. Now, on his path to the Pentagon, he has to hope that irritation doesn’t come back to bite him.
“He was respected as a colleague in the normal Senate tradition but was somewhat of a lone wolf and did not forge the deep personal relationships with his fellow Republicans that would translate into a ready reservoir of support for his nomination,” said John Ullyot, a former Marine intelligence officer who was the spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee under Chairman John Warner from 2003 to 2007. “On top of that, his outspokenness and blunt criticism of several Republican priorities at a critical time, including Iraq and Iran, while sincere and heartfelt, have left him without a natural platform of enthusiasm for his confirmation.”
And not just from his Senate tenure, either. Hagel endorsed Democrat Bob Kerrey in the Nebraska Senate race last year, but Kerrey’s opponent will be sitting on the Armed Services Committee instead, and Deb Fischer is looking forward to the meeting:
One vote that will be tough for Hagel to win: that of fellow Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer. Hagel crossed party lines to back Fischer’s Democratic opponent, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, in 2012. Now, Fischer sits in judgment of Hagel as a freshman member of the Armed Services Committee, the panel that will handle his confirmation hearing.
In a statement released Monday, Fischer hinted at what could be the ultimate spectacle of a Hagel confirmation hearing: her chance to question him directly from behind the dais.
“I plan to closely review Senator Hagel’s record and look forward to meeting with him to discuss his views on America’s role in an increasingly dangerous world. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I will also have the opportunity to publicly question Senator Hagel during his confirmation hearing in the coming weeks,” she said. “This process will be thorough and fair, and I look forward to participating in it.”
She won’t be the only one looking forward to this Q&A session.