Hagel beyond defense

It's official — they are worried, and they should be.

The New York Times reported Friday that a top Obama administration official assigned to Iran policy expressed concern after former Sen. Chuck Hagel's (R-Neb.) dismal confirmation hearing Thursday in the Senate Armed Services committee.

"It's somewhere between baffling and incomprehensible," the official told David Sanger of the Times, who noted "the worry was evident in the voice" of his source.

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It isn't just that Hagel's performance at the hearing wasn't convincing and didn't inspire confidence. It was disappointing that Hagel himself wasn't confident, did not display readiness and surely didn't appear prepared, for the hearing or the job. But on questions of policy, Hagel illustrated confusion and perhaps incompetence, to the U.S. Congress and perhaps to the Ayatollahs in Iran.

First he declared in his opening statement to the committee that "all options must be on the table," and that prevention, not containment, was his policy — the same as President Obama's. But the famous staff-note-moment, in which Hagel pointed out that he had answered questions later on incorrectly and no, he did not mean to say he supported containment with regards to Iran possessing nuclear weapons, is where things started to melt down. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) then felt the need to "clarify the clarify" by telling Hagel (and the rest of the world) "just to make sure your correction, we do have a position on containment, which is we do not favor containment." Oops.

On the record, Hagel's defenders talk about how mean Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was to his old friend, how much the questions focused on Iraq instead of Afghanistan and, overall, "the tone" of the hearing. All that may be so, but it isn't the headline. The news from Thursday is that Hagel was either ill-prepared or out of it. Both are disturbing, and because our enemies are watching, potentially dangerous as well.

As Sanger concluded, "Mr. Hagel's stumbling caused heartburn inside the administration because it made him appear unfamiliar with his brief. And even before he spoke, American credibility on the question of whether it would allow nations to get the bomb has been less than impressive."

But one doesn't have to question — as Hagel's fierce critics have — his positions or his past comments to be concerned about what was revealed in the hearing. One cannot defend — as his allies have his credentials and experience without questioning what he said Thursday and why he said it. Indeed, Hagel is a patriot, but if all Defense secretaries must be patriots, can all patriots be Defense secretaries? And while being a Defense secretary who was a soldier who served and was wounded in war would lend Hagel enormous credibility with all members of the armed forces, does that make him the proper manager of the entire Department of Defense at such a critical and frightening time?


WILL HAGEL BE CONFIRMED? SHOULD HE BE? AskAB returns Feb. 5. Please keep your questions and comments coming to askab@thehill.com. Thank you.