Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told senators he is proud of his record at a Thursday confirmation hearing, and that his nomination as Defense secretary should not be judged by a single statement from his congressional career.
“No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his opening statement.
Hagel has come under fire for past statements and positions on Israel and Iran ever since President Obama considered nominated him to lead the Pentagon.
The strongest fire has come from Hagel’s former Senate Republican colleagues, many of whom have criticized the ex-senator for supporting talks with groups such as Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group in Lebanon deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Critics have attacked several statements in particular with TV ads, such as his comments that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates people in Washington. Democrats and liberal groups have complained about his calling a diplomatic nominee “aggressively gay.”
The committee’s top Republican said he was opposed to Hagel, calling his record “deeply troubling” and “out of the mainstream.” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) cited Hagel’s opposition to sanctions against Iran, support of downsizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and saying that the Pentagon budget was “bloated.”
“We are just too philosophically opposed on the pressing issues facing our country for me to support his nomination,” said Inhofe, one of three Republicans to vote earlier this week against Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of State.
“His record demonstrates what I view as a lack of sound judgment and steadfast support for policies that diminish US power and influence throughout the world, as well as a recent trend of policy reversals that seem based on political expedience rather than core beliefs,” he said.
Inhofe said that Hagel’s record on U.S. security challenges was “deeply troubling” and “out of the mainstream.”
Inhofe also criticized Hagel for failing to provide sufficient materials to the committee ahead of the hearing, complaining that they received pages of documents from speeches late Wednesday.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also raised some of Hagel’s more controversial statements, but he said that Hagel’s perspective as a combat veteran would be “invaluable” for the Pentagon.
“As we struggle with the difficult security challenges facing our nation, the president needs to have a secretary of Defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force,” Levin said. “Senator Hagel certainly has those critically important qualifications to lead the Department of Defense.”
Hagel pushed back against the criticisms that have been lobbed against him in his opening statement.
He said he supports all options to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, backs defense cooperation with Israel and will fully implement the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The United States “must engage in the world – not retreat,” Hagel told the committee.
“My record is consistent on these points,” he said.
On Iran, Hagel said he supports a policy of prevention, not containment.
“I am fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and – as I’ve said in the past many times – all options must be on the table to achieve that goal,” Hagel said.
Hagel also addressed some of the major questions that would face his tenure at the Pentagon if he is confirmed. He said that he agrees with the president that U.S. troops should only serve two functions in Afghanistan after 2014: counterterrorism and training Afghan forces.
“It’s time we forge a new partnership with Afghanistan, with its government and, importantly, with its people,” he said.
Hagel was introduced by two former chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one Democrat and one Republican. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) lauded Hagel’s military service and said it would help guide him in making tough decisions.
“War for Chuck Hagel is not an abstraction,” Nunn said. “I’m confident if confirmed he will ask the smart and hard questions before sending troops into battle.”
Former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) talked about his time serving with Hagel in the Senate, and he noted also said he was sure Hagel would protect the troops who serve as a former enlisted soldier himself. “This man has the experience and gravitas and strength to protect the all-volunteer force,” Warner said.