Hagel faces tough questioning from McCain, others during confirmation hearing
Published January 31, 2013
WASHINGTON – Chuck Hagel faced tough questioning from senators Thursday as he tried to convince at least five Republicans to back his nomination for Defense secretary -- but lawmakers, including fellow Vietnam War veteran Sen. John McCain, dug in their heels during a tense confirmation hearing.
Another Republican lawmaker accused Hagel of "appeasing our adversaries." But McCain's position on Hagel could be a significant bellwether for his nomination. The two veterans once had a close relationship during their years in the Senate, but politics and Hagel's opposition to increased troop numbers in Iraq divided the two men.
It was the troop surge in Iraq that became a flashpoint between McCain and Hagel during Thursday's hearing. McCain repeatedly tried to get Hagel to answer whether he was "right or wrong" when he once called the troop surge a "dangerous foreign policy blunder."
"I'm not going to give you a yes or no -- I think it's far more complicated than that. ... I'll defer that judgment to history," Hagel said, adding that he was referring to both the overall Iraq war, as well as the surge, in that comment
McCain fired back: "I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it."
The senator added that Hagel's "refusal" to answer the question "will have an impact" on whether he votes for his nomination.
Hagel, a former Nebraska Republican senator, is among the most controversial of President Obama's second-term Cabinet nominees, due to positions he has taken on Iran and comments he has made about Israel and other topics.
In order to have a lock on the nomination, he would need the support of all Senate Democrats and at least five Republicans -- just in case Republicans call for a 60-vote threshold to proceed to the confirmation vote. It's possible Hagel would not need that many, though.
Hagel, during the hearing, urged lawmakers not to write him off based on a string of controversial votes and quotes from his career in the Senate.
"Like each of you, I have a record," Hagel said Thursday. "A record that I'm proud of. I'm proud of my record not because of any accomplishments I may have achieved, or certainly because of an absence of mistakes, but rather because I've tried to build that record based on living my life and fulfilling my responsibilities as honestly as I knew how and with hard work."
He continued: "But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record. My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead in the international community to confront threats and challenges together ... that we must use all our tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests."
He noted he's cast "over 3,000 votes" during his time in the Senate and given "hundreds of interviews and speeches."
But the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, announced at the start of the hearing that he would be opposing Hagel.
"On many of the security challenges facing U.S. interests around the world, Senator Hagel's record is deeply troubling, and out of the mainstream. Too often it seems he's willing to subscribe to a worldwide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends," he said. Further, he accused Hagel of recent "reversals" in his opinions "that seem based on political expediency rather than on core beliefs."
Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., also said Hagel's positions -- including opposition to unilateral sanctions on Iran and criticism of efforts to isolate both Syria and Hamas -- must be "explored at this hearing."
Still, he said Hagel -- as a veteran -- has "critically important qualifications" of understanding the consequences of using military force.
Hagel later defended his opposition to unilateral sanctions on Iran, saying he took that position a decade ago, which he described as a "different time."
As for claims that he's got a shaky position toward Israel, he said "I've never voted against Israel ever in the 12 years I was in the Senate.
Two former committee chairmen -- Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner -- introduced and endorsed the nominee at the top of the hearing.
If confirmed, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, would be the first enlisted man and first Vietnam veteran to serve as defense secretary.
Hagel has the announced backing of about a dozen Democrats and the tacit support of dozens more who are unlikely to embarrass the president by defeating his Cabinet pick. One Republican -- Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi -- has said he will vote for his former colleague.
Six Republicans, including four members of the Armed Services panel, have said they will oppose Hagel's nomination. Inhofe has said he and Hagel are "too philosophically opposed" on issues such as defense spending, nuclear weapons and the Middle East.
A recent Fox News poll showed 34 percent of voters saying they would vote to confirm Hagel, while 25 percent would not. The rest had not heard of him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., earlier this month described Obama's selection as an "in-your-face" pick but was a bit less critical this week.
"Who are we getting -- the guy today or the guy who said things before?" Graham said Tuesday after a 20-minute meeting with Hagel. Graham said he doesn't doubt Hagel's "personal integrity, but I do have real concerns about his policy positions."
Hagel testified Thursday that he is committed to Obama's national security agenda. Addressing concerns about his stance on Iran, he said "all options must be on the table" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
He also said it's important that the county "not hesitate to use the full force" of the military in defense of security, "but we must also be smart, and more importantly wise," in how that power is employed.
The hearing was the first time Hagel publicly addressed the barrage of criticism that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel or tough enough on Iran. In the past, Hagel has questioned the efficacy of unilateral sanctions on Iran, arguing that penalties in conjunction with international partners made more sense. He has also been criticized for his comments about the influence of a "Jewish lobby" and his view of gay rights. Hagel apologized for the "Jewish lobby" comment Thursday.
He addressed several of the issues in a 112-page questionnaire to the committee in which he said his wartime experience would shape his decisions about using military force.
"I understand what it is like to be a soldier in war," wrote Hagel. "I also understand what happens when there is poor morale and discipline among the troops and a lack of clear objectives, intelligence and command and control from Washington. I believe that experience will help me as secretary of defense to ensure we maintain the best fighting force in the world, protect our men and women in uniform and ensure that we are cautious and certain when contemplating the use of force."
In his responses, Hagel adopted a hard line on Iran and its possible pursuit of a nuclear weapon. He echoed Obama's view that all options are feasible to stop Tehran, praised the rounds of penalties and warned of "severe and growing consequences" if Iran balks at international demands.
Questioned about all options, Hagel said, "If confirmed, I will focus intently on ensuring that the U.S. military is in fact prepared for any contingency."
He said that he would continue to put in place the "smart, unprecedented and effective sanctions against the Iranian regime" that Congress and the Obama administration have adopted in recent years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.