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.

Susan Walsh/AP
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.

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.

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.” 

He added that he never voted against Israel, “ever,” in the 12 years he was in the Senate, and he pointed to statements from the Israeli ambassador to the United States that have been “fairly positive about me.”

Hagel’s most contentious exchange came with Senator McCain, who remarked that he was “pleased to see an old friend here before the committee” before launching into a particularly robust line of questions on the surge in Iraq. 

He reminded Hagel of his comments labeling the surge as the “most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country” since Vietnam. “Then of course you carried on for months and months afterwards, talking about what a disaster the surge would be,” he said.

What McCain really wanted to know, he told Hagel, is, “Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?” 

On this question, Hagel demurred, much to McCain’s consternation. “I’ll defer my answer to history,” he said. 

“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” McCain responded. “That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.” 

Hagel did not provide one. “I’m not going to give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I think it’s far more complicated than that.” 

Hagel did say he continued to believe that America’s war in Iraq was indeed the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder America has made since Vietnam.

“Aside from the costs that occurred in this country to blood and treasure,” he said, “what that did [was] to take our focus off of Afghanistan, which in fact was the original and real focus of a national-security threat to this country.” 

These answers did not please McCain. “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir,” he said. “And you’re on the wrong side of it.” 

McCain warned that he did not know whether he could vote for Hagel, given what he said was the nominee’s refusal to answer a direct question. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, has also vowed to vote against the nomination. 

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are consolidating votes within their own party and among Republicans as well, nearly enough to avert any filibuster attempts.

Throughout the hearing, Hagel stressed his take-home message, that his chief concern at the Pentagon would be the troops who bear the cost of US policy decisions. 

“I had one fundamental question that I asked myself on every vote I took, every decision I made: Was the policy worthy of the men and women that we were sending into battle and, surely, to their deaths?”

He recalled his service in Vietnam in 1968, serving side by side with his brother Tom during “the worst year” of the US war there, in which “we sent over 16,000 dead Americans home,” he reminded the committee.

“Now, that’s unfathomable in the world that we live in today. I saw that from the bottom,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m any better, Senator. It doesn’t mean I’m any smarter, doesn’t mean I’m any more appreciative of the service to our country. That’s not it.”

It’s simply that “I saw the consequences,” he added. “And the suffering and the horror of war.” 

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