Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, faced sharp and sometimes angry questioning from fellow Republicans at a contentious confirmation hearing Thursday that focused on his past statements on Iran, the influence of pro-Israel organizations in Washington and the Iraq War.
Hagel, 66, a former senator from Nebraska and a decorated Vietnam veteran, often seemed tentative in his responses during 71⁄2 hours of testimony.
The angriest exchange of the hearing occurred with Sen. John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran who was a close friend of Hagel in the Senate, but split with him because of Hagel’s skeptical views on the Iraq War. In 2008, Hagel did not endorse McCain for president.
Hagel dodged a direct answer as McCain asked him repeatedly if history would judge whether he was right or wrong in opposing the surge in U.S. armed forces in 2007. The escalation, along with other major factors, is credited with helping to quell the violence in Iraq at the time. When Hagel said he wanted to explain, McCain bore in.
“I actually would like an answer, yes or no," McCain said.
“Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no," Hagel replied.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it," McCain said. “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 I vote for your confirmation or not."
One of the most hostile questioners was Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who told Hagel to “name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby." Hagel, who in 2006 said that the “Jewish lobby" intimidates Congress, could not.
Under gentle but persistent questioning from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the panel, Hagel said he had voted against some unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran in 2001 and 2002 because “I thought that there might be other ways to employ our vast ability to harness power and allies."
White House officials privately made no argument that he had performed well. But they remained optimistic that he would be approved by the committee, where Democrats hold a 14-12 majority, and the full Senate as well.