WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, came under sharp and sometimes angry questioning Thursday from fellow Republicans at his Senate confirmation hearing, including from his old friend, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is still smoldering about their break over the Iraq war.
Hagel, 66, a former senator from Nebraska and a decorated Vietnam veteran who would be the first former enlisted soldier to be secretary of defense, often seemed tentative in his responses to the barrage from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who showed him little deference and frequently cut him off.
One of the most hostile questioners was Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who told Hagel to “give me an example of where we’ve been intimidated by the Israel-Jewish lobby to do something dumb.” Hagel, who in 2006 said the “Jewish lobby” intimidates Congress, could not.
From Hagel’s home state, Sen. Deb Fischer told Hagel he held “extreme views” that were “far to the left of this administration.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, surprised the hearing with excerpts on a giant video screen from an interview Hagel gave to Al-Jazeera in 2009. Although it was difficult to hear the short clips, Cruz claimed they showed Hagel agreeing with a caller who suggested Israel had committed war crimes.
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“Do you think the nation of Israel has committed war crimes?” Cruz demanded.
“No, I do not, Senator,” Hagel replied.
His exchange with McCain was the most notable, given that the two former Vietnam veterans were close friends when they served in the Senate until Hagel’s views on the Iraq war caused a split. In 2008, Hagel did not endorse McCain for president and traveled with Obama, then a senator from Illinois, to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel dodged a direct answer as McCain asked him repeatedly if history would judge whether Hagel was right or wrong in opposing the buildup in U.S. armed forces in Iraq when he was in the Senate. The escalation, along with other major factors, is credited in helping to quell the violence in Iraq at the time. When Hagel said he wanted to explain, McCain bore in.
“Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel — the question is whether you were right or wrong?” McCain said.
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer,” Hagel replied.
McCain did not let up.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it,” McCain said, and then seemed to threaten that he would not vote for Hagel if he did not answer the question.
It took the next questioner, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to draw out Hagel out on the subject.
“I did question the surge,” Hagel said. “I always asked the question, ‘Is this going to be worth the sacrifice?’ ”
He said 1,200 American men and women lost their lives in the buildup. “I’m not certain it was required,” Hagel said. “Now, it doesn’t mean I was right.”
It was unclear how the committee would vote on Hagel’s nomination. He needs a majority of the 26-member panel, which includes 14 Democrats, almost all of whom are likely to support his nomination.
In his opening statement, Hagel said he was fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He also said the United States must lead other nations in confronting threats, use all tools of U.S. power to protect its people and “maintain the strongest military in the world.”