WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, who was twice wounded as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam, came under withering attack Thursday as he battled former Republican colleagues in the Senate who sharply questioned whether he should be secretary of Defense.
In a daylong confirmation hearing notable for its raw emotion, Hagel was challenged to explain — and often to retract — earlier comments critical of Israel, his onetime skepticism of the nuclear threat from Iran, and perhaps most memorably, whether he could name a single “dumb” action the Senate had taken under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.
Hagel, who appeared beleaguered at times, said he could not.
The spectacle often seemed more about Republicans publicly settling scores with the 66-year-old Nebraskan, who spent two terms in the Senate and retired in 2009. He grew increasingly estranged from his GOP colleagues after he began to criticize the war in Iraq, expressed doubts about use of force against Iran and lent support to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
Hagel sometimes stumbled answering the rapid-fire questions, at one point misstating — later correcting himself — the White House policy on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
He still appears likely to win confirmation by the full Senate, which has a Democratic majority.
If confirmed, Hagel would be the first Vietnam combat veteran to lead the Pentagon. The former Army sergeant, who spent 1967-68 fighting in the Mekong Delta, would inherit a Defense Department facing potentially drastic budget cuts, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war in Afghanistan, a growing debate over targeted killings by drone aircraft, an emerging conflict with insurgent groups in North Africa, the integration of women into direct ground combat roles, and other tasks.
But on Thursday, the battle over his nomination reopened contentious national security debates from years past. At times the session seemed more an inquisition than a typical confirmation hearing.
In the most striking example, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost to Obama in 2008, ripped into Hagel for his critique of the Iraq war, displaying how the bond forged between the former colleagues by their military service in Vietnam had been torn apart by another war.
“The question is, were you right or were you wrong?” McCain demanded, pressing Hagel on why he opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to send 20,000 additional troops to Iraq in the so-called surge.
“I’m not going to give you a yes-or-no answer. I think its far more complicated than that,” Hagel responded calmly. He said he would await the “judgment of history.”
Glaring at Hagel, McCain ended the exchange with a bitter rejoinder: “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you are on the wrong side of it.”
Hagel faced tough questioning even from Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee who have announced they intend to vote for him.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, took issue with what he called Hagel’s “troubling” statements about Israel, his calls for direct talks with the militant group Hamas and his advocating against isolating Iran.
“While there is value in communicating with our adversaries, the formulation used by Sen. Hagel seemed to imply a willingness to talk to Iran on some issues that I believe most would view as nonnegotiable,” Levin said.
When the hearing began, Hagel said he stood by his record in public service even as he urged lawmakers to look beyond his now-controversial votes and statements. He noted that he had cast thousands of votes during his Senate career and given hundreds of interviews and speeches.
“As you all know, I am on the record on many issues,” he said. “But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record.”
Since his nomination last month, Hagel has clarified or apologized for several controversial statements. He also sought to rebut critics who warned he may not push hard enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“We were in a different place with Iran at that time,” Hagel said Thursday, explaining why he once voted against imposing unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran. “It was never a question of did I disagree with the objective” of denying Iran nuclear weapons.
But he clearly didn’t satisfy Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who seemed outraged at Hagel’s 2006 remark in an interview that “the Jewish lobby” had intimidated members of the Senate into doing “dumb things” not in the interest of Israel.
“Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby,” Graham demanded.
“I don’t know,” Hagel said.
But Graham pressed further. “Now give me one example of the dumb things that we’re pressured to do up here.”
“Well, I can’t give you an example,” Hagel said.
Hagel has previously apologized for referring to a “Jewish lobby.” On Thursday he said he meant that the “pro-Israel lobby” uses “influence,” not intimidation.
Naming a Republican to run the Pentagon was seen by the White House as a way to build bipartisan support for the pullout from Afghanistan and for cutting the Defense budget. But one after another, Hagel’s fellow Republicans criticized him for past statements or accused him of changing his views to win confirmation. Some leveled both charges.
“Many of my colleagues are concerned that you’ve changed your views, and I share that concern. But I must admit that I’m more worried that your views have not changed,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican freshman from Nebraska, Hagel’s home state. “You continue to hold, I believe, extreme views far to the left of even this administration.”
Republicans also condemned Hagel’s post-Senate involvement in Global Zero, a policy advocacy group that has called for elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide. He signed a report by the group calling for sharply reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile, possibly without comparable cuts by Russia in its own arsenal.
Hagel insisted Thursday he would only support shrinking the U.S. stockpile as part of a negotiated agreement with other nuclear powers. He reminded Republicans that President Reagan had called for eliminating nuclear weapons, but that didn’t quiet the GOP criticism.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the panel, said Hagel “too often, it seems, is willing to subscribe to a world view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had a video monitor brought to the packed hearing room to show excerpts from a 2009 interview with Hagel on Al Jazeera, the Middle East satellite TV channel, in which he was asked to respond to callers’ critical comments about Israel and the U.S. Cruz later said he would vote against Hagel.
Levin told reporters after the hearing that Hagel was responsive and “kept his cool.” He said he hoped the committee would report his nomination to the full Senate late next week, and expected that “he would be given very urgent consideration,” an acknowledgment that some Republicans are threatening to filibuster the nomination.
Cabinet nominations often spark fierce debate, but outright rejections are rare. The Senate last rebuffed a nominee in 1989, when it voted against President George H.W. Bush’s pick for the Pentagon,
former Texas Sen. John Tower.
Republicans forced Obama’s first choice for secretary of State, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, to withdraw after they criticized her comments about last year’s lethal attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) got the nomination instead, and he won overwhelming approval in the Senate this week after a confirmation hearing that was a virtual love fest.
Michael Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.