WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary today defended his views of the military and global threats in a combative confirmation hearing, pushing back against criticism of his past statements on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons. Chuck Hagel told senators that America “must engage — not retreat — in the world,” and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.
The former two-term Republican senator faced strong GOP resistance and was forced to explain past remarks and votes even as he appeared on a path to confirmation as Obama second-term defense secretary and the nation’s 24th Pentagon chief.
His fiercest exchange came with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a fellow Vietnam veteran, onetime close friend and a potential vote that would 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 at the confirmation hearing.
McCain pressed Hagel on whether he was right or wrong about his opposition to the influx of 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007. 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.
Unable to elicit a simple answer, McCain said the record should show that Hagel refused to answer.
McCain made it clear that he would have the final word — with his vote, which he said would be influenced by Hagel’s refusal to answer yes or no.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. And 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,” he said.
Hagel was the lone witness in a jam-packed hearing room at a session that could be crucial in determining whether he will win Senate confirmation and join Obama’s second-term national security team. He spoke out forcefully for a strong military while trying to explain 12 years of Senate votes and numerous statements.
“No one individual vote, no one individual quote or no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Hagel, 66, is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran.
He would be the lone Republican in Obama’s cabinet and the first enlisted man to become defense secretary.