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McCain pounds Chuck Hagel in Senate confirmation hearing

At the confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary, Sen. John McCain took a particularly robust line of questioning, asking him about his views on the surge in Iraq.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / January 31, 2013

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona (r.) asks a question of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (c.), President Obama's choice for defense secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, during the Senate confirmation hearing.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Washington

It was a marathon, day-long hearing for former Sen. Chuck Hagel as he was grilled in front of a standing-room-only crowd on his past “votes and quotes,” as one lawmaker put it, in his quest to become America’s next secretary of Defense.

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Was Mr. Hagel willing to concede that the surge in Iraq was not, as he had argued, America’s greatest foreign-policy blunder since Vietnam?, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona asked – repeatedly.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina wanted to know whether Hagel would change his mind and vote, if he had the chance, “today, tomorrow, or after lunch” to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.

And did he regret calling pro-Israel groups in America an intimidating force that drives US officials “to do dumb things”?

On all these questions, Hagel endeavored to reassure critics of his tough national-security bona fides, while remaining, for the most part, characteristically unapologetic about most of his past remarks.

He also stressed that his decisions as secretary of Defense, should he be confirmed, would be driven by how they affect troops and their families.

“The people in Washington make the policy,” Hagel wrote in his memoir, “but it’s the little guys who come back in the body bags.” 

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed to this remark in his opening statement. 

Yet Senator Levin also sought to distance himself a bit from some of Hagel’s positions, in particular his willingness to conduct “direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks” with Iran on some issues that, Levin said, “I believe most of us would view as nonnegotiable.”

Throughout the proceedings, Hagel offered a handful of clarifications about his more controversial positions.

He emphasized, for starters, his support for Israel, after being widely criticized – and apologizing – for saying that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates many Washington politicos. 

“I’ve always said I’m a supporter of Israel,” he told lawmakers. “In some cases, I’ve said I’m a strong supporter of Israel.” 

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