Chuck Hagel fielded heated questioning Thursday from Republicans regarding his record on Iran sanctions, Israel and nuclear weapons, but President Barack Obama’s pick to be the next Pentagon chief did not appear to suffer any fatal blows.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hagel was, as expected, forced to defend, amend, explain or retract statements he had previously made on a wide range of issues.
Hagel stumbled a few times, including accidentally saying he supported the president’s policy on containing Iran, an error he quickly corrected. But Democrats largely worked to help him hew closely to the Obama administration’s policy lines.
Addressing concerns that his positions have been too soft on Iran, Hagel acknowledged that he was “part of an effort” in 2008 to block Iran sanctions legislation from being debated on the Senate floor. But he also provided assurances that many lawmakers have been waiting to hear, including his support for a policy of prevention, rather than containment, on Iran and, if necessary, unilateral sanctions on Tehran.
“Unilateral sanctions, because we’ve already got strong international sanctions, should be considered,” Hagel said. “I think the president is right to consider those. I would support those.”
The nominee also sought to correct his remarks to an author who quoted him as saying, “the Jewish lobby intimidates” many lawmakers into making “dumb” decisions regarding Middle East policy. Hagel’s most outspoken opponents have branded him an anti-Semite for his reference to the “Jewish lobby.”
Hagel apologized, saying he should have referred to “the pro-Israel lobby.” He also said he regretted the use of the term “intimidate,” saying he should have used the word “influence.” And he pulled back on his “dumb” characterization, acknowledging that “there are different views on these things.”
The former Republican senator from Nebraska also stressed that a much-publicized nuclear disarmament report he co-wrote last year merely set an “illustrative” example of a reduction in the nuclear arsenal rather than a hard and fast set of recommendations — an argument that many Republicans did not buy.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire called Hagel’s comments “troubling and inconsistent.” But his stated commitment Thursday to maintaining and modernizing the nuclear arsenal, and his opposition to unilateral reductions to the U.S. nuclear inventory, may be enough to sway some lawmakers who remain on the fence over his nomination.
Hagel, who joked that more attention has been paid to his words in the past eight weeks than he ever thought possible, made clear that no single vote, quote or statement defines him, his beliefs or his record.
“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 take advantage of opportunities together; and that we must use all our tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests,” said Hagel, a Vietnam veteran. “I believe, and I always have believed, that America must engage in the world, not retreat from the world.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.