As the Senate Armed Services Committee continued its hearing for the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, it became clear that Hagel’s greatest critics are his former colleagues from the Republican side of the aisle. Veteran senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both of whom worked with Hagel closely during his 12 years in the Senate, led the charges against him during the hearing.
Graham, who made no secret of his opposition to Hagel’s nomination from the outset, led an interrogation-style line of questioning, focusing on Hagel’s now-famous remarks to David Aaron Miller in which he spoke of the “Jewish lobby” and its “intimidating” power over decision makers in Washington leading to “dumb” actions regarding the Middle East.
“Name one person here who’s been intimidated by the Jewish lobby,” Graham fired at Hagel. “Name one.”
“I don’t know,” Hagel replied.
“Then why did you say it?”
“I didn’t have a specific person in mind.”
“Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing due to pressure by the Israeli or Jewish lobby.”
“I have already stated that I regret the terminology,” Hagel answered.
Graham then asked Hagel to name “one dumb thing” that senators were pressured to do by the pro-Israel lobby.
Hagel replied: “I don’t know.”
“Do you agree with me you shouldn’t have said something like that?”
“Yes,” Hagel admitted. “I’ve already said that.”
Graham concluded his line of questioning by stating Hagel’s record on Israel “runs chills up my spine.”
He also asked the nominee about a letter supporting Israel which Hagel refused to sign while he was in the Senate. In a highly theatrical moment, Graham handed Hagel the letter and asked him to consider signing it now.
Freshman senator Ted Cruz provided the committee with some audio- visual moments when he played a recording of an interview Hagel gave Al Jazeera network. Cruz claimed that the interview confirmed that Hagel views America as “the world’s worst bully,” a description that Hagel, and committee chairman Carl Levin, disputed.
More than half of the session, up to its second recess taken at 2 PM, was devoted to issues relating to Israel, Iran, and the pro-Israel lobby. The debate also went on outside of the committee room. In a joint interview on MSNBC, Democratic senator Claire McCaskill and Republican adviser Dan Senor traded barbs over Hagel’s views on Israel. Senor listed all the Jewish groups that oppose the nomination, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti Defamation League, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But McCaskill demonstrated that she also has a good grasp of Jewish organizational politics. “You and I both know that if Chuck Hagel presented a threat to Israel, AIPAC would be swarming over the Hill,” she said, adding that had there been a problem with Hagel “You wouldn’t have Chuck Schumer coming out as strongly as he has for Chuck Hagel. These are in fact, the extreme group in this advocacy area.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.