In Hearings, Why the Different Standards for Kagan and Petraeus?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 - 09:34 AM

So a female legal scholar and Ivy League dean faces the Senate Judiciary Committee today, while a male military scholar and Ivy League PhD faces the Senate Armed Services Committee. The tone of the two hearings will be very different for some obvious reasons.

Petraeus is beloved of both parties and has already commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan. His confirmation is a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, it’s not going to be easy for Elena Kagan, whose confirmation is hers to lose based on her support among majority Democrats. The irony is that Petraeus’s Ivy League credentials, coupled with his military experience, are likely to be intimidating to questioning Senators, while the fact that Kagan was the dean of the Harvard Law School is going to be an opening for questioning her lack of experience as a judge.

Most of the Senators are lawyers, so maybe that is the entre to be tough on Kagan. Petraeus’s academic degrees, however, are in international relations and public administration, which are hardly obscure subjects for opinionated Senators. Yet, while Petraeus’s credentials seem to be a restraining force on the Senators of the Armed Services Committee, it’s more of an “open season” on Kagan over the Judiciary.

We’ve seen a rise of the scholar-general in the Pentagon. It’s a good thing to enlarge the expertise of military leaders, but does it elevate them to an untouchable priesthood? In the Civil War,  Abraham Lincoln — the self made scholar — became a self-made military tactician because he wanted to be able to second guess the frustrating military leadership of the Union Army. Despite his lack of experience, Lincoln's oversight led to the Union victory, while disastrous decisions by generals like MacClellan, Hooker and Burnside aided Confederate forces. If generals with PhDs intimidate civilian political leaders, what quality of oversight can we expect in the Afghanistan War? If Lincoln wasn’t intimidated by his generals, then Obama and the Senate shouldn’t be either. And why should it be any different for Supreme Court nominees?

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