Is it time to filibuster Hagel?

Before you answer that question, take a look at this video from the Emergency Committee for Israel, which put together one of the most embarrassing episodes ever by a Cabinet nominee during a confirmation hearing:

“Is it too much to ask,” ECI wonders, “that Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel knows the Obama administration’s policy on Iran?”  Is it also too much to ask that a Cabinet nominee for a post this critical spend any time preparing on what was obviously going to be a central issue for the Armed Services Committee?  Even Carl Levin, who supports Hagel’s nomination, looks to his fellow committee members with a look that says I can’t believe this is happening.

It still is, though, and Republicans have to ask themselves whether they should force Barack Obama’s hand with a filibuster.  While I normally believe filibusters on presidential nominations are difficult to justify, Hagel’s nomination clears that bar, as I argue in my column in The Week:

Despite having gone through a mock hearing with White House advisers, Hagel seemed lost and confused for much of the actual questioning on Capitol Hill. Hagel tangled first with John McCain over a sore subject — the surge in Iraq, which Hagel vocally opposed in 2006 and 2007, and which eventually succeeded in stabilizing central Iraq. The outcome of that argument largely rests on which position one takes today on the surge, but that’s not true of other Hagel stumbles.

For instance, the panel pressed Hagel for his position on Iran. In the past, Hagel has opposed both sanctions and the discussion of a military option to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon. But before the Senate panel, Hagel announced that he believed in the policy of “containment,” and that the government of Iran is “elected” and “legitimate.” That came as news to everyone, since that’s neither the policy of the Republicans nor the Democrats. After an aide passed him a note, Hagel then retracted that statement and added that he had no position on containment. An exasperated Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Armed Services Committee, informed him that the U.S. in fact does have a policy on containment — we oppose it.

Finally, when challenged on his lack of experience at the Pentagon and unfamiliarity with issues of weapons systems, technology, and other areas, Hagel told the panel that he would learn as he goes. “There are a lot of things I don’t know about,” Hagel stated. “If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do.” One might ask why Obama didn’t appoint someone to run Defense who already knows a lot more than Hagel does, or why Hagel hasn’t bothered to learn it before appearing at his own confirmation hearing.

Republicans would arguably do Obama a favor with a filibuster, in fact:

If Republicans unite in opposition to a confirmation vote, the White House will waste no time in blaming Republicans and casting them as villains attacking a combat veteran. However, it will also give Obama a reason to back away from Hagel’s now-demonstrable incompetence and make a new selection for secretary of defense. The most likely candidate, Michelle Flournoy, has plenty of experience at the Pentagon, serving as undersecretary of defense for the first three years of Obama’s first term. She spent several years at the Pentagon in Bill Clinton’s administration, with repeated citations of excellence for her work. Flournoy would become the first female defense secretary in American history, and might alleviate some criticisms over the lack of diversity in Obama’s second-term Cabinet. Plus, Flournoy would almost certainly understand the difference between “containment” and “prevention,” and would probably prepare more thoroughly for a confirmation hearing, too.

In fact, Flournoy has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about the dangers of poorly-considered drawdowns in the American military:

Unfortunately, the United States has an abysmal record of managing postwar drawdowns of defense spending. Almost all have resulted in a “hollow force”—too much force structure with too little investment in people, readiness and modernization.

Why? Because the easiest way to reduce Defense Department spending quickly is to enact across-the-board cuts in military end-strength, operations and maintenance, and procurement—solving the budget problem on the back of the force rather than on the department writ large.

In past drawdowns after World War II, Vietnam and the Cold War, American planners assumed a period of peace. But as the U.S. transitions in Afghanistan, no such calm appears on the horizon. From instability in the Middle East to al Qaeda’s resurgence in northern Africa, North Korea’s continued provocations and Iran’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons, the global security environment remains dangerous and volatile.

In this context, the U.S. must take care to preserve the military capabilities it needs to protect America’s interests now and in the future. The armed forces must retain the ability and agility to respond rapidly and effectively to a broad range of contingencies. Deep cuts to force structure, readiness and modernization should be the last resort, not the default course of action.

I find the timing of this essay rather interesting. It provides a stark contrast to Hagel’s bumbling, confused, and ill-informed performance last week.  Whether or not one agrees with Flournoy, she has more on the ball in one column than Hagel managed to express in a day-long hearing, or in the weeks since the White House first floated his name as Leon Panetta’s successor.

If Hagel was being nominated to an inconsequential post within the administration, it wouldn’t be worth opposing, regardless of his lack of qualification and seemingly total disinterest in learning about the job before his hearing.  But Defense is among the most consequential posts of any administration, and it needs someone who can at least clear the competence bar in a hearing.  Senate Republicans should filibuster Hagel’s confirmation vote, and force Obama to select someone who can handle the job.