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During his questioning of Hagel, Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel pressed the nominee about his involvement in the nuclear report, which was put out by the non-proliferation group Global Zero. Hagel stressed that he has always supported international disarmament talks — a position, he said, that dates back to President Ronald Reagan.
“We aren’t going to unilaterally disarm,” he responded.
Echoing the administration’s own talking points, Hagel assured the panel that his policy on Iran would be one of prevention, not containment. He also said he would ensure that Israel maintains its “qualitative military edge” in the region and pledged to support efforts like the Iron Dome missile defense system.
In a move to dispel any doubts about his support for Israel, he strongly reaffirmed the U.S. relationship with the Jewish state.
“I absolutely support the continuation and strengthening of our relationship with Israel,” he declared, adding that he would “maintain and enhance” the U.S. commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge over its Arab adversaries.
Several GOP senators, including Inhofe, have already vowed to vote against Hagel’s nomination, pointing to concerns that he is too soft on Iran and not committed to modernizing the military’s nuclear arsenal. On Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced that he plans to vote against Hagel.
In his opening remarks Thursday, Inhofe called Hagel’s record “deeply troubling and out of the mainstream” and said he has too often been willing to subscribe to a worldview of “appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.”
Many other Republicans, including moderates such as Susan Collins of Maine, have said their vote on Hagel’s nomination hinges on how he fields questions at the confirmation hearing.
The Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, addressed Hagel’s previous statements on Iran, particularly his comments that unilateral sanctions are ineffective at isolating Iran.
“While effective multilateral sanctions are preferable, unilateral sanctions are an important part of the approach that the Obama administration has followed and Congress has supported, and it appears that sanctions are producing tremendous pressure on Iran,” Levin said.
In response to questions from Levin, Hagel explained his earlier opposition to unilateral sanctions, saying that it was a “different time.”
“We were in a different place with Iran during that time,” Hagel said. “It was never a question of did I disagree with the objective,” he added.
Many Democrats have been noncommittal about Hagel as well, but most are expected to endorse his nomination.
Addressing some concerns from the left, Hagel said he is committed to continuing the implementation of the repeal of the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law. He also said he would do “everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our servicemembers,” a nod to gay rights advocates who have pushed to extend benefits to the families of gay members of the military.
In addition, Hagel said he supported the Pentagon’s decision last week to open ground combat positions to women and would work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to implement the historic change in policy.
Jonathan Broder contributed to this report.