In his opening statement, Hagel stood by his record during his two terms in the Senate, during which he cast more than 3,000 votes, as well as his work since leaving Capitol Hill. But he also conceded throughout the hearing that he has made mistakes along the way.
“Like each of you, I have a record. A record that I am proud of, not because of any accomplishments I may have achieved, or certainly because of an absence of mistakes, but rather because I’ve tried to build that record based on living my life and fulfilling my responsibilities as honestly as I knew how and with hard work,” he said.
One testy early exchange Thursday concerned one of those elements of Hagel’s record: his opposition to the Iraq war. Sen. John McCain of Arizona pressed Hagel on whether he now believes he was right to oppose the 2007 surge of troops in Iraq, a stance that put the former Nebraska senator at odds with McCain and other members of his own party.
McCain balked when Hagel refused to give him a simple answer.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you were on the wrong side of it,” McCain said. “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.”
Later, Hagel pointed out that almost 1,200 members of the U.S. military were killed during the surge of forces in Iraq.
“Was it required? Was it necessary? Sen. McCain has his own opinion,” Hagel said. “I’m not sure. I’m not that certain it was required. It doesn’t mean I’m right. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t make wrong votes.”
Hagel, who acknowledged that he personally opposed Obama’s decision to surge troops into Afghanistan, said he now backs the White House’s plan in the country.
“There is little question, and I support completely, where the president wants to go in Afghanistan and his commitment to unwind that war,” he said.
Hagel’s work since leaving Congress has included the report he co-wrote last year with retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that called for sharp reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and, eventually, standing down the land leg of the nuclear triad of air, sea and land delivery platforms.
Cartwright and the other authors of the report have stressed that any reductions in the U.S. inventory must be done as part of bilateral negotiations with Russia, not unilaterally. In his opening statement, as well as in written responses to questions submitted in advance of Thursday’s hearing, Hagel stood by plans to modernize the country’s nuclear assets.
“I am committed to maintaining a modern, strong, safe, ready and effective nuclear arsenal,” he said. “America’s nuclear deterrent over the last 65 years has played a central role in ensuring global security and the avoidance of a World War III.”