WASHINGTON – Facing a room jam-packed with friends, former colleagues, detractors and advocates, Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel defended his legislative record and comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
The hearing was contentious, with testimony lasting nearly seven hours, as the former Nebraska senator and decorated Vietnam veteran made a statement then took questions from critics who focused on what some see as his reluctance to take a hard line against Iran and terrorism, his questionable commitment to Israel and his unwillingness to support the "surge" in Iraq.
In one of the most heated exchanges, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he opposed the Hagel nomination because of “fundamental differences” in their opinions. McCain forcefully attempted to pin down Hagel on his opposition to the surge in Iraq.
“I want to know if you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question, and I expect a direct answer,” McCain said.
Hagel’s response: “I’m not going to give you a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ I’ll defer that judgment to history,” further roiling McCain. Hagel said he did not support the surge because of his experience as a soldier in Vietnam.
“I saw it from the bottom. I saw the consequences and the suffering and the horror of war,” he said. “So I did question a surge. ... I always asked the question, is this going to be worth the sacrifice, because there will be sacrifice.” Citing almost 1,200 dead Americans and thousands wounded he asked: “Was it required, was it necessary? Senator McCain has his own opinion on that, shared by others. … I’m not that certain that it was required.”
If nominated, Hagel would be the first enlisted soldier and Vietnam veteran to serve as Defense Secretary. Hagel fielded pointed questions from Republican and some Democratic senators.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., grilled Hagel on actions that “seemed to be glaringly at odds” with his recent statements promising a hard line against Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and affirming Israel as a crucial ally.
They include Hagel’s reported unwillingness to support a bill extending harsh sanctions against Iran in 2001, and in 2000, for being one of just four senators who refused to sign a letter to President Bill Clinton affirming American solidarity with Israel in the face of Palestinian aggression.
Hagel said he didn’t recall the petition. He also maintained that even though he may have voted against those particular sanctions against Iran, he has cast many votes in his 12 years in Congress, some of which have supported unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran.
He also said he has been a steadfast supporter of Israel, having never voted against legislation that supports it, and recognizing it as “special ally” of the United States.
“I have always been a strong supporter of Israel,” he said.”That commitment is a bond, and it is more than just ally-to-ally,” he said. “It’s special, it’s historic, and it is values-driven.”
Inhofe and other senators quizzed Hagel on his involvement in Global Zero Movement, asking how it was consistent with maintaining a strong nuclear arsenal in the nation’s defense.
Hagel said that his position on nuclear armament, with an eventual goal of disarmament, was not different from the majority of world leaders past and present, including former President Reagan.
But his position “has never been for unilateral disarmament, never, ever,” he said. Instead, it must be bilateral.
A host of Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, hammered him with snippets of past quotes that have come to haunt him, including an expressed willingness to engage in direct talks with Iran, even advocating at one point for Iran’s membership the World Trade Organization.
He defended those past positions -though he acknowledged they are not valid now - by explaining that it was his belief that it might be worth trying those methods, such as direct talks, as the United States does with North Korea, and accepting some countries into world organizations, such as China, in the hopes of trying to change their positions.
When Graham asked about Hagel’s infamous “Jewish lobby” statement, Graham demanded: “Do you agree that was a dumb statement?” To which, Hagel said, “Yes, I do.”
Cruz inventoried a long list of such statements or votes by Hagel, which geared toward painted him as being soft on terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, holding pro-Palestinian sympathies, and far-left of the mainstream opinions on national security issues.
At one point, Cruz showed video excerpts from two interviews on Al Jazeera, that he asked the former senator to account for, charging that they were evidence of Hagel’s anti-Israel and anti-American views. Yet, Hagel called Cruz’ interpretations inaccurate.
When confronted by numerous senators with a long series of his past statements, Hagel responded at times that he did not remember them - or did not believe they represented the full context of his comments. Other times, he said that he regretted them.
“If I had the ability to go back and edit, I would,” he said a number of times, to which Sen. David Vitter, R-La., accused him of “flip-flopping.”
In his opening statement, Hagel acknowledged that he is on the record with many issues. But, he said, “no one individual vote, quote or statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record. “
Instead, he told the committee, “my overall world view has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in world, that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together. ... America must engage — not retreat — in the world. My record is consistent on these points.”
Hagel also emphasized his full commitment to ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, even if that means harsher sanctions against it and the possibility of unilateral military action by the United States.
“We should put all options on the table,” he said, echoing President Obama’s position on staving off Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
Hagel said he believes in the “awesome” power of the United States, and urged caution in its use. “No nation in the world is even in our league. We have done so much good with that power. I don’t think there’s a nation in the history of man who has ever been as judicious and careful with its power as we have, and I want to continue to do that.”
Thus, he said the military option “should always be on the table, but it always should be the last option…because aren’t we smarter if can accomplish our objectives without a war? “
Votes on Hagel’s confirmation in the committee could come in the next week, and if approved, it would be taken up in the full Senate.
Jennifer Hlad contributed to this article.