Chuck Hagel had a less than stellar performance at his hearing where he faltered before those who freshman senator Angus King dubbed his “inquisitors.” To Michael Cohen, Hagel was “sluggish, tongue-tied and practically meek in the face of constant badgering” and Winslow Wheeler found him “fumbling and apologetic.” But how could he have comported himself so woefully with all the weeks of preparation he undoubtedly had? How come, as John Judis observed, “Hagel acted as if he was blindsided”? It’s because he was acting, like he and Senator Chuck Schumer did when they met last month. This time Hagel was participating in the gaudy, gigantic political circus that is a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. There was no need for him to deliver riveting soliloquies in response to the absurd grilling and all he had to do was the minimum–avoid fighting back and let his former colleagues clown around to their heart’s content.
That the hearing was but a grandiose show was amply illustrated by Matt Duss who came up with an explanation for the “hesitant and adrift” Hagel:
“Looking to make sense of the spectacle, I spoke to a former senior defense official who has testified over 200 times before Congressional committees, who suggested that Hagel may have been right not to push back harder. “The thing to remember with these hearings is that the Senators have home-field advantage,” he said. “You really can’t win. If they’re there to score points, they’ll do it.”
As to the element of performance involved, “Once, before a hearing, I was passed a note by a Senator,” the former official continued. “It read ‘Don’t pay attention to what I’m about to say, it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at my constituents.’ So there’s a lot of theater involved in these things.””
James Joyner, who cited the foregoing quote in his own piece on the hearing, felt that saying there’s “a lot of theater involved” was “a rather kind understatement. In fact, the hearings—like pretty much all congressional hearings—are almost entirely theater with very little substance. The senators have already made up their mind on how they’re going to vote.” Defense expert Anthony Cordesman concurs, telling Matthew Schofield that “the hearing appeared to be about stating already set opinions and that he [Cordesman] doubted it would change any votes.” Hagel certainly knew that this was a farce with a foreordained outcome and he shrewdly muttered the answers he needed to in order to get confirmed. One of the inquisitors, Senator Jim Inhofe, caught on to this when he commented on the prospective Defense Secretary’s “recent trend of policy reversals that seem based on political expediency rather than on core beliefs.” True, but Inhofe and the rest of the resistance were likely doing some play-acting of their own.
Hagel must have been passed his fair share of notes from his opponents who reassured him that he should ignore their grandstanding which was for scoring political points in their home states (Just look at who Senator Lindsey Graham has to placate). But, aside from the anti-Hagel japeries at the hearing, there is an even greater act of collective mendacity pervading Washington that was on display that day. “It’s the law” as Jon Schwarz describes it that “everybody in the U.S. government has to tell this funny lie”: all options are on the table for dealing with Iran. No politico believes that to be the case because, as Schwarz argues, none of them have ever advocated for the best and “obvious option for dealing with any Iranian ambitions to build nuclear weapons would be for the U.S. to push for a zone free of all nuclear weapons throughout the Mideast.” All options are clearly not being weighed and Schwarz’s piece reminded me of another funny lie that I uncovered—the military option isn’t really on the table either.
Though I have written about how Israel dropped the military option against Iran and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pulling off the bluff of the century, considering the strong aversion to war with Iran in the U.S. military establishment it’s safe to say that the Pentagon stealthily dropped the option too. All this insistence that the U.S. will bomb Iran is wind but everyone in Washington, whatever their private scruples, is obliged to uphold this unspoken law so as not to rupture the bluff. Why is Washington taking this gambit? Because it has its advantages, which is the reason no one will come out in force against the military option but instead delicately object about timing. Like with Israeli officials who know war would be a disastrous idea zip their lips because they don’t wish to ruin Netanyahu’s successful poker maneuver, their U.S. counterparts recognize the benefits of bravado.
For Israel, bluffing that they’ll unilaterally attack Iran, as Israeli commentator Udi Segal outlines the strategy, “makes the Iranians feel fear, the Americans take action, the Europeans impose sanctions, and everyone worry.” For the U.S. the constant touting of a military option keeps tensions up in the region which makes the Gulf States clamorous for more and better arms. Our supplying them with these arms serves to make them bastions against Iran, putting them in the forefront of the mini Cold War while the U.S., leading from behind, is then finally able to pivot to the Pacific. So, in brief, that’s why we see everyone publicly truckling to the hawks but we needn’t be worried because everyone is in on the ruse. What we’ve learned from Hagel’s hearing and the capital’s ubiquitous theatrics is that overtly discussing serious policy is subordinated to having politicians strutting and fretting their hour upon the world’s stage and risking World War III in the process.