WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers harshly attacked Chuck Hagel on Thursday at a contentious hearing over his nomination to become the next U.S. defense secretary, questioning his judgment on war strategy and putting him broadly on the defensive.
In one of the most heated exchanges, influential Senator John McCain aggressively questioned Hagel, interrupting him and talking over him at times. He openly voiced frustration at Hagel’s failure to say plainly whether he was right or wrong to oppose the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.
“Your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not,” McCain said.
Hagel, who like McCain is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, declined to offer a simple yes or no answer, responding: “I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out.”
As President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Pentagon in his second term, Hagel may yet win Senate approval with help from majority Democrats, but he appeared to pick up little fresh Republican support as his hours-long hearing wore on.
Hagel’s fellow Republicans dredged up a series of his past controversial statements on Iran, Israel and U.S. nuclear strategy, trying to paint him as outside mainstream security thinking. Even in polarized Washington, the grilling was highly unusual for a Cabinet nominee.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina laid into Hagel for once accusing a “Jewish lobby” of intimidating people in Washington, comments Hagel repeatedly said he regretted. Asked whether he could name one lawmaker who had been intimidated, Hagel said he could not. It was one of the many times he appeared uncomfortable.
“I can’t think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said,” Graham said.
If he is ultimately confirmed, Hagel would take over the Pentagon at a time of sharp reductions in defense spending, but with the United States still facing major challenges, including China, Iran and North Korea.
Hagel, speaking publicly for the first time since the attacks against his nomination began, at times seemed cautious and halting. He sought to set the record straight, assuring the panel that he backed U.S. policies of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and supporting a strong Israel.
“No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel said in opening remarks to the packed hearing room.
“My overall world view has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world.”
In an unusual reversal of partisanship, Democrats, more than his fellow Republicans, gave Hagel sympathetic support and time to air his views.
The committee’s Democratic chairman, Carl Levin, said his concerns, especially over Hagel’s past comments about unilateral sanctions on Iran, had been addressed. “Senator Hagel’s reassurance to me ... that he supports the Obama administration’s strong stance against Iran is significant,” Levin said.
Despite the harsh tone from many Republicans, some senators from the party approached Hagel more collegially.
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia called Hagel by his first name and exchanged jokes with him during his testimony. He served alongside Hagel in the Senate. Roy Blount of Missouri had a cordial exchange about the strength of the country’s industrial base.
But Hagel years ago angered many Republicans by breaking with his party over the handling of the Iraq war.
It was one of several contentious chapters of modern U.S. history that surfaced during the session, from the Vietnam War, where Hagel served as an infantryman and was wounded, to President Ronald Reagan’s call for nuclear disarmament.
Hagel also was questioned on his view of the Pentagon budget. He is known as an advocate for tighter spending controls.
Even before Hagel started speaking, James Inhofe, the panel’s senior Republican, called him “the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time.”
“Senator Hagel’s record is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream. Too often it seems he is willing to subscribe to a worldwide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends,” Inhofe said as the hearing opened.
McCain’s harsh attitude toward Hagel - who he also singled out for opposing Obama’s surge of forces in Afghanistan - was a far cry from their past, warm ties. McCain campaigned for Hagel in 1996, and Hagel was national co-chairman of the Arizona Republican’s unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid.
On Thursday, McCain said that concerns about Hagel’s qualifications ran deep.
“Our concerns pertain to the quality of your professional judgment and your world view on critical areas of national security, including security in the Middle East,” he said.
In the entire Senate, which would vote on Hagel if he is cleared by the committee, only one of the 45 Republicans - Mississippi’s Thad Cochran - has said he backs Hagel.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida on Thursday joined the list of Republicans who said they will vote against Hagel.
In written responses to wide-ranging questions submitted by lawmakers ahead of the hearing, Hagel said that if confirmed, he would ensure that the military is prepared to strike Iran if necessary but stressed the need to be “cautious and certain” when contemplating the use of force.
Hagel told lawmakers all options must be on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon - language used to suggest the possibility of a nuclear strike.
“My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment,” he said.
Hagel also voiced support for a steady U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, pledged to ensure equal treatment for women and homosexuals in the military and assured the committee that the United States would maintain an “unshakeable” commitment to Israel’s security.
(This story corrects spelling of Lindsey Graham)
Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Warren Strobel and Jackie Frank