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Chuck Hagel, Senate Republicans clash at confirmation hearing

Published: Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 9:24 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — The left came Thursday to praise former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican whom President Barack Obama nominated to be his next secretary of defense.

The right came to, if not bury him, keep him on the hot seat all day as it explored his views and past, sometimes controversial, statements on Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and nuclear weapons.

Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee started out collegial enough. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., noted that the twice-wounded and decorated former Army sergeant in Vietnam could be the first former enlisted man to rise to the top spot at the Pentagon.

That was followed by glowing tributes from former Sens. Sam Nunn, a conservative Georgia Democrat, and John Warner, a moderate Virginia Republican. Both are former chairmen of the Armed Services Committee.

Warner said that in Vietnam, Hagel had walked point — “get out and lead in the face of the enemy” — and would be well-suited to do so again at a time of serious global threats.

“If confirmed, Chuck Hagel will do it again, this time not before a platoon, but before every man and woman and their families in the armed services,” Warner said.

Then Hagel started taking verbal fire.

“His record demonstrates what I view as a lack of sound judgment, and steadfast support for policies that diminish U.S. power and influence throughout the world,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee’s ranking member.

Even Levin, while complimentary of Hagel, indicated that some of Hagel’s past statements troubled him.

The most contentious moment was when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an old friend, colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran, called their differences “fundamental.”

A champion of the military “surge” in Iraq in 2007 that saw the addition of 20,000 troops, McCain pressed Hagel, with whom it’s been reported that he’s had a falling out, over whether the former senator was wrong to oppose the surge.

Hagel replied that time would tell eventually but that to answer would require a more detailed and nuanced response.

McCain insisted: “The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge,” he said. “Are you going to answer the question, Sen. Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question.”

On several occasions, Republican critics asked Hagel to explain the phrase “Jewish lobby,” which he once used to describe the influential groups in Washington that promote a pro-Israel agenda, and whether he still thought that they had intimidated members of Congress into doing, as he once said, “dumb things.”

When pushed, Hagel said he regretted the phrase and couldn’t name a lawmaker who might be described in that manner.

“I have always said I am a supporter of Israel,” Hagel said.

He was asked repeatedly to explain a report he had co-authored that called for reducing nuclear arms on a bilateral, verifiable basis. The other co-authors were two former top U.S. diplomats, a former vice chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and a former NATO supreme allied commander.

Hagel told Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that the report, known as “Global Zero,” was never about unilateral disarmament. He also said his positions echoed those of former President Ronald Reagan.

“Our nuclear deterrent has been at the core of keeping world peace and avoiding World War III,” he said.

He took more heat on his past opposition to using economic sanctions against Iran. He has said he favors direct negotiations to resolves issues with the Islamic Republic.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., tried to clarify Hagel’s positions by asking whether he thought that all options should be on the table regarding Iran, whether he thought Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism and whether sanctions were appropriate. Hagel said he subscribed to all three views.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said he didn’t know whether the president had watched any of the hearing, but added: “What we have also seen is some of the usual kind of political posturing.”

Anthony Cordesman, a defense and intelligence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense policy research center, said the hearing appeared to be about stating already set opinions and that he doubted it would change any votes.

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