WASHINGTON—Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Thursday led a group of senators in grilling President Barack Obama's pick to head the Defense Department during his second term.
Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, faced grueling questioning during a confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in the Senate Armed Services Committee. The most confrontational queries came from his former Republican colleagues, who expressed concern about Hagel's views on Iran and Israel, and his opposition to the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After Hagel suggested history has yet to judge the success of the two surges, McCain shot back: “History has already made a judgment on the surge, and you, sir, are on the wrong side of it."
Hagel, who represented Nebraska from 1997 to 2009, received support from former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and John Warner, R-Va., during the hearing's opening statements. Hagel followed with prepared remarks in which he advocated for working closely with NATO, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and ensuring women are allowed to fill combat positions in the military. He also highlighted the importance of maintaining American strength abroad, asserting the United States "must engage, not retreat, from the rest of the world."
Hagel repeatedly expressed a strong commitment to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and said all options, including force, should be on the table—a switch from his previously stated positions. Several committee members pressed Hagel on his current views, especially ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who completed his questioning by asking, "Why do you think the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?"
Hagel, a long-time opponent of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran, said he had "no idea."
Hagel also faced pointed questions about Israel, although he claimed never to have voted against the country's interests. In 1999, Hagel was the only U.S. senator not to sign a letter condemning anti-Semitism in Russia, and in 2006 he said, "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," which has caused America to do some "dumb things."
When Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Hagel to name one senator who had been intimidated, or one "dumb thing" America had done in regard to Israel policy, he said he couldn't. Hagel said he regretted his comments, but much was taken out of context.
"I should have said pro-Israel lobby," he said. "The use of intimidation—I should have used influence."
Hagel also shifted positions on global nuclear disarmament, a view he espoused last year in a Global Zero report. On Thursday he told the committee, "A strong, agile, safe secure, effective, nuclear arsenal for the United States is not debatable."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wrote Wednesday in National Review that Hagel's new positions amount to a "confirmation conversion."
Although the opposition to Hagel is no surprise, he is expected to be confirmed before the full Senate, where Democrats hold a 10-seat majority.