Facing a rocky confirmation process, Chuck Hagel today defended his record before his former Senate colleagues, including an openly impatient Sen. John McCain.
"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," Hagel said.
A Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska 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 a wide-ranging committee meeting that lasted all day on Thursday, Hagel faced questions on nuclear disarmament, the negative effects of potential automatic budget cuts known as "sequestration," and, most notably, Hagel's record on Middle East policy, including his stances on Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Hagel's exchanges with his former Republican colleagues took a bristly tone on a broad set of topics, as GOP senators repeatedly criticized his record and cut him off as he attempted to explain his stances
In the hearing's testiest exchange, 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.
The Arizona senator championed the "surge" both as a senator and in his 2008 presidential campaign, while Hagel joined Democrats in vocally criticizing the strategy. McCain pressed Hagel at today's hearing to say whether he believes the surge was 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. 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
Hagel also underwent some tough, pointed questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an ally of McCain's in the Senate. Graham pointed out Hagel's decision not to sign letters on Middle-East policy during his Senate career, at one point asking Hagel, "Do you think that the sum total of your record, all that together, that the image you've created is one of sending the worst possible signal to our enemies and friends at one of the most critical times in world history?"
Hagel said he did not.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., appeared dissatisfied with Hagel's answers on nuclear nonproliferation. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., suggested Hagel had "flip-flop[ped]" on Middle East policy since being nominated.
But perhaps the most aggressive GOP senator in questioning Hagel was newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who arranged for audio recordings of Hagel to be played in the committee room, as he questioned Hagel about a past interview. He suggeted Hagel's record "demonstrates a greater antagonism for the state of Israel than any member of this body." And he requested that Hagel read and submit written reaction to a speech by Charles Freeman, a former intelligence nominee who withdrew in 2009 after controversy arose over his stances on Israel.
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 his Middle East record 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.
"Senator 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 at the hearing 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.