Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel endured a thorough pounding on Thursday at the hands of his fellow Republicans during a contentious, daylong confirmation hearing that did nothing to improve his prospects for heading the Pentagon. But in a Senate where Democrats control four more votes than the 51 needed to approve him, it may not matter.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, sometimes stumbled over predictable questions about his past opposition to unilateral sanctions on Iran, and his condemnation of what he once called the "Jewish lobby" and its influence on American-Israeli ties. Throughout the day, Republicans waged an electronic anti-Hagel campaign, emailing reporters quotes like, "There are a lot of things I don’t know about. If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do. I will have to." There appeared to be no parallel pro-Hagel effort by President Barack Obama's administration.
Prodded on the former Nebraska senator's often shaky performance, White House press secretary Jay Carney criticized Republicans for "political posturing" and predicted Hagel would be confirmed—but studiously avoided saying what Obama thought of the hearing or if he even watched it.
"I was with him for some time earlier today, not around a television, so I can't—I can say that during that period, he did not. But I can't say that definitively that he hasn’t seen any of it. As you know, he doesn't spend a lot of time watching TV," Carney said. "The president is absolutely confident that Sen. Hagel will, as I said, make an excellent secretary of defense."
The Senate confirms Cabinet secretaries by simple majority. But 60 votes are needed if Republicans opt to throw up procedural roadblocks to delay—or kill—the nomination. Democrats, with their independent allies, have a 55-45 advantage in the Senate. To date, the only Republican to come out publicly as a “yes” vote has been Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.
The day's most charged exchanges included an angry assault by Republican Sen. John McCain, a dramatic turn given that Hagel co-chaired the senator's 2000 presidential campaign.
McCain derided Hagel as stubbornly camped “on the wrong side” of history when it comes to Iraq and openly doubted whether he could support the confirmation of his former comrade.
McCain welcomed the former senator by saying he was “pleased to see an old friend” before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he immediately ripped into “the quality of your professional judgment.” (Politico’s David Chalian noted on Twitter that the Arizona lawmaker’s tone suggested that “old friend” really meant “ex-friend.”)
McCain, a champion of the troop surge in Iraq, hammered Hagel over his opposition to that escalation of the war and demanded that Hagel admit he was wrong to warn it could turn out to be a Vietnam-level debacle. After labeling Hagel’s concerns “bizarre” and “nonsense,” McCain demanded to know whether the nominee stood by his criticisms and asked, “Were you right or wrong about the surge?”
“I stand by 'em because I made 'em,” Hagel replied. “I would defer to the judgment of history.”
As Hagel offered to “explain” his remarks, McCain cut him off: “I want to know whether you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question; I expect a direct answer.”
“The surge assisted in the objective,” Hagel said. “But if we review the record a little bit ..."
“Will you please answer the question?” McCain jumped in. “Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?
“Were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question,” McCain said.
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer,” Hagel said. “If you would like me to explain why ...”
“No, I actually would like an answer, yes or no,” McCain said, cutting him off.
“I’ll defer that judgment to history,” Hagel repeated. But he added that his Vietnam comments referred to “the overall war of choice, going into Iraq” and he called the March 2003 invasion “the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam.”
“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 to vote for your confirmation or not.”
“I hope you will reconsider,” McCain said.
Both McCain and Hagel voted in favor of going to war in Iraq, but Hagel later turned sharply against the conflict, often echoing then-Sen. Barack Obama's accusation that the invasion diverted resources from Afghanistan.
Republicans battered Hagel on his past opposition to unilateral economic sanctions against Iran (he has said multilateral sanctions are more effective). They repeatedly hit him on a report that he co-authored that calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons. He countered that Republican icon Ronald Reagan also favored ridding the world of atomic arsenals, and he insisted that the report was merely suggesting a possible approach, not “unilateral” disarmament.
Sometimes Hagel himself helped them. At one point, he mistakenly broke with Obama's policy of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and said he favored "containment." After being handed a note, he corrected himself.
Much of the Republican questioning focused on Hagel’s personal policy views, not the Obama administration policies he would be implementing.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina zeroed in on Hagel’s contention that the “Jewish lobby” intimidated American lawmakers into doing dumb things. Under Graham’s pointed questioning, Hagel acknowledged he could not name a specific lawmaker—or a single dumb thing.
Questioned by Republican Sen. Saxy Chambliss of Georgia, Hagel said Iran’s government was “an elected, legitimate government, whether we agree or not.” (The United States does not have an embassy in Iran, but it negotiates with Tehran as part of multilateral talks on that country’s nuclear program. And Washington has repeatedly criticized Iran’s elections as fixed by the country’s religious leadership.)
Confirmation hearings—much like formal debates on the Senate floor—don’t typically change senators’ minds. Hagel’s confirmation, or defeat, was being played out behind the scenes as lawmakers measured the likely impact on their political fortunes. It was unclear whether Hagel would lay to rest questions about his views on Israel and Iran.
As the hearing wore on, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida released a statement opposing Hagel's confirmation, as expected.
Republicans sometimes stretched the truth in their attacks. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked Hagel to account for his 2006 description of Israel's 2006 military operation in Lebanon as a "sickening slaughter." In fact, Hagel had urged then-President George W. Bush's administration to call for a ceasefire, saying "the sickening slaughter on both sides must end and it must end now."
As the hearing got underway, Hagel pleaded with senators not to judge him based on controversial past remarks—like his warning against the “Jewish lobby”—or on single votes he cast during his Senate career.
“No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel said in his opening remarks.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday that he disagreed with Hagel on a range of issues, but he called Hagel a “smart, capable guy” who deserves a full hearing. And even some of Hagel's most forceful opponents, like Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, have to date stopped short of vowing to filibuster his nomination.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, charged that Hagel would promote "a worldview that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends" and bluntly called him "the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time."
In his remarks, Hagel took aim directly at some of his critics—and sought to reassure lawmakers who might be on the fence.
“I will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region and will continue to support systems like Iron Dome, which is today saving Israeli lives from terrorists' rocket attacks,” he said.
"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," he added, using diplomatic language that refers to the use of military force. "My policy has always been the same as the president’s—one of prevention, and not one of containment—and the president has made clear that is the policy of our government."
Hagel's years in the Senate haven't endeared him to many Republican lawmakers still smarting over his outspoken criticism of the Iraq War even after he voted to authorize the U.S. invasion. Hagel's position on the war sealed his reputation as a party outsider and led him to lend tacit support to Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Hagel has been criticized for opposing U.S. sanctions against Iran in the past—a position he now embraces—and calling for direct talks between Tehran and Washington without preconditions.
"Like each of you, I have a record. A record I am proud of, not because of any accomplishments I may have achieved or an absence of mistakes, but rather because I’ve tried to build that record by living my life and fulfilling my responsibilities as honestly as I knew how and with hard work," the former senator 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 that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests. I believe, and always have, that America must engage—not retreat—in the world. My record is consistent on these points."
Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam and still carries shrapnel in his chest, would be the first former enlisted soldier to head the Pentagon.
He was introduced by two retired senators with long careers on the committee: Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican John Warner of Virginia. After a lengthy opening tribute, Warner got laughs from the room when he turned to Hagel and declared: "You're on your own. Good luck!"