OWLS HEAD, Maine — The Senate Armed Services Committee — surely one of the most important committees in what we euphemistically refer to as the Upper House of our Congress — gave a nice, day-long display at the end of last week as to why Congress's approval rating, in a new survey, remained in single digits.
The committee was questioning former Senator Chuck Hagel to assess his qualifications to become Secretary of Defense. While Hagel seemed somewhat nonplused by the aggressive questioning and its bizarre focus, it's too bad some of the questioning senators weren't also undergoing job scrutiny because they surely would have flunked the test.
President Obama's new secretary of defense will be heading up our military through the middle years of this decade: years when we exit Afghanistan and watch as nuclear-armed India and Pakistan maneuver in subtle and not-so subtle ways to fill the vacuum our departure will create; years when turmoil in Syria finally reaches what may be a catastrophic climax; when Egypt's exercise in Muslim Brotherhood-led democracy may unravel; when North African Islamic extremists may spread their chaos beyond Mali and Libya; when the death of the two-state solution in Palestine may initiate a third intifada.
These will be years when China's unsurprising interest in expanding its influence in Asia may collide with the growing nationalism of a Japan generations removed from World War II. Momentous years.
So how did some of the Senate's finest minds seek to evaluate Hagel's qualifications? John McCain, a growing embarrassment to his former self, has single-handedly made the disastrous Republican choice of Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate this past year look positively brilliant when compared with the party’s choice four years earlier. In the Hagel hearing, he seemed primarily interested in playing "gotcha" with aspects of the Iraq war.
McCain zeroed in on the surge, which Hagel had opposed, trying to make Hagel say his judgment had been wrong. When Hagel started to explain his decision, McCain would have none of it.
McCain: "I would like an answer, yes or no?"
Hagel: "Well I'm not going to give you a yes or no."
McCain replied, "Your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether I vote for your confirmation or not."
Whether or not the surge was a good move across a spectrum of spectacularly bad moves seems beyond irrelevant in today's world where Iraq's tilt towards Iran should be the real concern. Not to McCain.
Meanwhile, reflecting Congress’s mantra that it is Israel all the time, Lindsey Graham was primarily interested in Hagel's comments some years back abut the "Jewish lobby." That was Hagel’s term for the pro-Israel groups headquartered around K Street that, he said, "intimidated" Congress.
"Name one dumb thing we've been goaded into doing because of pressure from the Israel or Jewish lobby," Graham demanded. "Name one congressman," he continued, the lobby had intimidated. A safe rhetorical gambit for Graham who knew it would have been impossible for Hagel to go mano-a-mano on a subject where the charge of anti-Semitism can trump reason or facts.
If Hagel had been willing to put his nomination at risk, he could have recalled the tumultuous welcome Congress gave Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu in May 2011 on the heels of his public rejection of President Obama's call for a settlement freeze as a prelude to resumed peace talks.
Netanyahu got 29 standing ovations as our elected representatives outdid one another in showing there is no daylight between them and whatever Israel's far-right leadership wants.
Among elements that received vigorous applause were Netanyahu's refusal to consider granting the Palestinians any part of Jerusalem for their capital, his insistence that in any future peace deal Israel intended to retain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, his assurance that Israel would not even agree to a symbolic compromise with regard to the Palestinian right of return.
In other words, what our elected officials were roundly cheering — either in ignorance or intimidation — was a knife in the heart of any hope for a two-state solution.
One can only hope that congressional support for Netanyahu’s extremist positions was, indeed, a consequence of intimidation. Otherwise, the alternative is just outright stupidity.
Congress is guilty of one or the other, which helps explain why Americans have such a low opinion of its elected legislative body.
The death-knell to the peace process — anyone who believes that a two-state solution is still possible hasn't been paying attention — has put both the United States and Israel in increasingly untenable positions. Total US support for Israel, regardless of its continuing expansion into the West Bank, cannot be justified to the rest of the world. It undermines the stated aspiration of the US as a peace-making broker.
Worse, the collapse of Mubarak's dictatorial rule in Egypt means that Egyptian policy has shifted and is no longer in lockstep with the US on Israel. Nor will Assad’s successor in Syria likely be as committed to a peace as he was.
In short, the Arab World, for both the man in the street and the men at the top, is set on an increasingly anti-Israel — and by extension — anti-American path. As the UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood last November showed, Jimmy Carter's prediction a few years back that the road ahead for Israel resembled that of apartheid South Africa is more and more the worldwide view.
Iran also got plenty of attention in the hearings, with the senators eschewing a thoughtful discussion with Hagel in favor of more grandstanding. Republican Sen. Inhofe of Oklahoma tried to embarrass him by asking why he thought "the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination." Hagel was flustered but responded gamely, "I think it's always wise to try to talk to people before you get into war. I have never thought engagement is weakness."
A good opening for a serious dialogue on Iran, had the senators been interested.
Ted Cruz, Texas's Latino contribution to the Senate Tea Party team, confused Hagel and everyone else in the room by showing bizarre recordings from an Al-Jazeera interview with Hagel that was designed to establish guilt through association. It served, instead, to establish the freshman senator as a rising non-entity in a sea of non-entities.
Maine's just sworn-in Sen. Angus King, an independent caucusing with the Democrats, summed up the Republican approach quite nicely:
"I thought Republicans were overly negative. I don't know any other way to characterize it," King said.
He could have added that it was par for the course.
The British reporter covering Hagel's appearance for the nightly BBC news, broadcast by PBS, laughed off the hearings, mocking them as a "farce."
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.