For Hagel, What a Difference a Committee Makes

During his confirmation hearings before the U. S. Senate Committee on Armed Services Thursday, former Senator and Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel demonstrated his lack of knowledge among the very similar committees in his old employer. 

Hagel was asked a very serious question about the U.S. policy on containment of nuclear weapons.  In error, Senator Hagel said he supported President Obama’s stated policy of containment.  The Chairman of the committee and a close personal friend of Hagel, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) tried to come to the nominee’s assistance.  Hagel aides quickly advised the senator of the error of his statement.  Hagel promptly inserted, “…I meant to say that we don’t have a position on containment.”  The correct policy, especially as it relates to Iran, is not containment of their potential nuclear weapons, but prohibition.

Sen. Hagel is obviously a very smart man.  He served for 12 years in the Senate, and that included service on the important Committee on Foreign Relations as well as the equally important Intelligence Committee.  He was a high profile visitor to the Middle East, often alongside fellow Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Az.).  There is no more serious threat to civilization today than nuclear weapons, and there is no greater fringe country in the world than Iran, and maybe North Korea.

So how could Hagel have missed such a critical point?  Some would say it was because he sat in the committee room taking a withering assault, primarily from his Republican former colleagues.  McCain was almost militant seeking Hagel’s admission of error in opposing McCain’s introduction of the surge in Iraq.  There are few appointment s in government as complex and difficult to master as is defense and the sprawling pentagon.  Add to that, Hagel had to explain his previous remarks implying less than complete support for Israel.  So, a slip here and there is probably understood?

No, I would argue that there is a mountain of difference between serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee, as did Hagel; and the committee hearing his confirmation, Armed Services.  As I said earlier, there is nothing as vast and complex as defense and the pentagon.  In addition to the academic knowledge of the military industrial complex, there is the culture of the agency.  Add to that the separate culture of the various branches of the military, that are often at odds and in competition for the billion dollar budget.  Perhaps most important is the knowledge and inner workings of the Armed Services Committee.  As I have said many times, when you are studying politics, the first place to start is in the agency Dempsey Dumpster.  More important than the Senators on the committee is the staff, especially the veterans of many years.

So perhaps the lesson for President Obama and the presidents that follow, if you are going to appoint a former senator or representative to head the goliath Department of Defense, make sure that your nominee has served on the Armed Services Committee of either house, and preferably chaired it.  Anything less is handicapping your nominee during the advice and consent of the U. S. Senate.

Robert W. McKnight is a former Florida Senator and Representative.  He was written two books about Florida politics and provides political commentary on television, for The Contributor, The Huffington Post and Florida media. His Blog is

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