WASHINGTON — Republican senators hammered former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearing Thursday on issues ranging from Israel and Iran to his support for a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. But with most Democrats in his corner, an unflustered Hagel seems headed for approval as defense secretary.
Hagel, a former two-term senator from Nebraska, described his views as mainstream and closely aligned with those of President Barack Obama, the Democrat who nominated him. But several GOP members of the Armed Services Committee sought to portray him as radical and unsteady. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., called his ideas “extreme” and “far to the left” of Obama.
Hagel said he believes America “must engage — not retreat — in the world,” and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.
He pointed to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as an example of an urgent national security threat that should be addressed first by attempting to establish dialogue with Iranian rulers, although he said he would not rule out using military force.
“I think we’re always on higher ground in every way — international law, domestic law, people of the world, people of the region to be with us on this — if we have ... gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible, peaceful way, rather than going to war,” he said.
He pushed back on the notion that he favors a policy of appeasement. “I think engagement is clearly in our interest,” Hagel told Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who denounced the idea of negotiating with a “terrorist state.”
“That’s not negotiation,” Hagel said. “Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender.”
After the daylong hearing, committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the panel could vote as early as next Thursday if Hagel quickly provides additional material requested by some members.
The nominee’s fiercest exchange came with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a fellow Vietnam veteran, onetime close friend and a vote that could carry considerable sway. Politics and Hagel’s evolving opposition to the Iraq war caused a split between the two men that was on full display.
McCain suggested that Hagel and his critics were not quibbling over small matters. “They are not reasonable people disagreeing; they are fundamental disagreements. Our concerns pertain to the quality of your professional judgment and your world-view on critical areas of national security,” he said.
McCain pressed Hagel on whether he was right or wrong about his opposition to President George W. Bush’s decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost. Hagel, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, later opposed the conflict, comparing it to Vietnam and arguing that it shifted the focus from Afghanistan. “Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?” McCain asked.
“I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out,” Hagel said as the two men talked over each other. “The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge,” McCain insisted.
Republican Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, listens as he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)×