Chuck Hagel endured sharp exchanges with his former GOP colleagues in the Senate on Thursday during a heated hearing over his nomination to lead the Pentagon.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who was once close with Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska and fellow Vietnam War veteran — demanded a yes-or-no answer from Hagel on whether he was wrong to call the 2007 surge in Iraq a mistake.
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no, I think it’s far more complicated than that,” Hagel responded.
“Let the record to show he refused to answer that question,” McCain said, adding that it might negatively affect his ultimate vote on Hagel’s confirmation.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it,” McCain told Hagel.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took Hagel to task for his comments about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating lawmakers to sometimes do “dumb” things.
Graham pressed Hagel to name “one person” intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby, and then to give “one example of the dumb things that we're pressured to do up here.”
“Name one,” Graham said.
“I do not know,” Hagel responded.
Graham said after the hearing that he was leaning against voting for Hagel’s confirmation.
“I’m very reluctant to confirm somebody who I think is saying one thing one moment and something else [the next],” Graham said. “This is a pretty clear case of confirmation conversion.”
Hagel also clashed with Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the senior Republican on the panel.
Inhofe drew an audible gasp in the hearing room by asking Hagel why he thought that Iran’s Foreign Ministry supported his nomination.
“I have a difficult enough time with American politics, senator. I have no idea,” Hagel said. “But, thank you. And I'll be glad to respond further for the record.”
Earlier, Inhofe opened his questioning by asking Hagel to simply verify — without explanation — five of Hagel’s past actions on Israel, Hezbollah and Iran.
“I don't want to be rude. You and I are very good friends, but I know that my time's going to expire. Others are going to ask as to why you did this. I was asking for the accuracy, and if you don't want to answer that, that's fine,” Inhofe said.
“I just said I did vote against it and I was going to explain why I voted against it,” Hagel responded.
“They'll be asking you for your explanation. I want to get to three other things, and that's why it's critical that we kind of keep moving along here,” Inhoffe said.
Inhofe, who has already said he was voting against Hagel for Defense secretary, knocked the nominee for his work with Global Zero, a group that supports the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Hagel responded by saying he and the organization never supported unilateral disarmament, and quoted former President Reagan’s support for eliminating nuclear weapons.
“The position of Global Zero ... has never been unilateral disarmament ever. Never,” Hagel said.
After his questions, McCain told a small group of reporters that he was “disappointed” with Hagel’s answers. But he said he still hadn’t made up his mind on how he would vote on Hagel’s confirmation.
“It certainly affects it,” McCain said. “We expect witnesses to answer the question and he refused to do so.”
The Democratic senators on the committee used their questions to allow Hagel to explain the aspects of his record that have come under fire, such as his support for Israel.
“I never voted against Israel in the 12 years I was in the Senate,” Hagel said. “My record is very clear on that.”
In his opening statement, Hagel told senators he is proud of his record and that it should not be judged by a single statement or quotation from his congressional career.
“No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel said.
“My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world, that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together, and take advantage of opportunities together, and that we must use all our tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests,” Hagel said.
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.
—This story was first posted at 11:53 a.m. and updated at 2:06 p.m.