(WASHINGTON) — Facing a rocky confirmation process, Chuck Hagel defended his record before his former Senate colleagues in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
“I’m on the record on many issues, but no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me,” Hagel said in his opening statement at his first confirmation hearing for secretary of defense.
“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,” he said.
A Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator who left office in 2009, Hagel, 66, is President Obama’s nominee to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Despite his 12-year career in the Senate, Hagel faces opposition from many of his former Republican colleagues.
In the hearing’s testiest exchange, Sen. John McCain grilled Hagel on the former senator’s opposition to the Iraq “surge” — a stance that separated Hagel from most members of his party in 2007.
McCain championed the “surge” both as a senator and in his 2008 presidential campaign, while Hagel joined Democrats in vocally criticizing the strategy. At Thursday’s hearing, McCain pressed Hagel to say whether he believes the surge was indeed a mistake.
When Hagel declined to answer “yes” or “no,” McCain told his former colleague, “I want to know if you were right or wrong.” McCain said, “That’s a direct question,” repeatedly accusing Hagel of refusing to answer the question.
“You’re on the wrong side of it, and your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong on it is going to have an impact on my judgment on whether to vote for your confirmation,” McCain concluded.
Senate Republicans and pro-Israel groups have voiced grievances with Hagel’s record, including opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, support for talks with Hamas, opposition to deeming Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, and a reference to Israel-backing groups as the “Jewish lobby.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., acknowledged such concerns as he opened the committee’s hearing, referencing “troubling statements [Hagel] has made about Israel and its supporters in the United States.”
Hagel defended himself under questioning from multiple senators.
“When I voted against some of those unilateral sanctions on Iran, it was a different time,” Hagel said, referring to votes in the early 2000s. “We were in a different place with Iran at that time. As a matter of fact, the Bush administration did not want a five-year renewal of [the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act] at that time because they weren’t sure of the effectiveness of the sanctions.”
Hagel said his record of public statements shows he has consistently referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups and Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“The way I approached every vote I took in the Senate was what I thought would be the most effective,” Hagel said, defending his vote against labeling Iran’s guard corps as a terrorist group. “What was the situation at the time, how can we do this smarter and better?”
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee’s top Republican, said he will oppose Hagel’s nomination.
“Sen. Hagel is a good man who has a record of service,” Inhofe said of his former GOP colleague, while concluding, “he is the wrong person to lead the Pentagon.”
Hagel was introduced by former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and John Warner, R-Va., two respected former members of the Armed Services Committee, both of whom lavished praise on Obama’s nominee.
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