Chuck Hagel at Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Updated Feb. 26: Chuck Hagel received Senate confirmation as secretary of defense in a 58-41 vote.
Updated 6 p.m. ET: Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., faced questions on possible looming spending cuts at the Pentagon and his support for U.S. ally Israel at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday to become secretary of defense.
Several senators asked about his commitment to Israel based on comments he made in a 2006 interview with Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller, when Hagel referred to the “Jewish lobby.” (Read more of his comments in this Washington Post fact-check account.)
“I regret the terminology,” Hagel said again at Thursday’s hearing.
“Do you think Israel has committed war crimes?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, after playing the audio from an interview Hagel did in which a caller characterized it as such. “No I do not,” Hagel told the senator.
Updated 1:05 p.m. ET: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called Hagel a “breath of fresh air” for his tendencies toward bipartisanship and gave the former senator the chance to speak more about his background serving in the Vietnam war.
Hagel said it’s led him to ask the question when making policy decisions: “Is the policy worthy of the men and women we are asking to make sacrifices?”
Updated 12:30 p.m. ET: The hearing went into a brief recess to give senators time to vote.
Updated 11:35 a.m. ET: A “strong, agile” nuclear weapon arsenal is necessary for the United States, Hagel emphasized when asked about his support for the Global Zero movement to eliminate nuclear weapons in the world.
Updated 11:15 a.m. ET: “Were you correct or incorrect about the surge in Iraq?” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., repeatedly asked Hagel. McCain was referring to comments Hagel made against the troop surge in 2007 under President Bush, when he called it “the most dangerous policy blunder” since Vietnam.
“I’m not going to give you a yes-or-no answer,” Hagel answered. “I’ll defer that judgment to history.”
“I think history already has made a judgment about the surge, sir. And you are on the wrong side of it,” McCain responded, adding that Hagel’s noncommittal answer might affect his vote to confirm Hagel.
Hagel went on to explain his stance on the Iraq war, “Aside from the cost to this nation in blood and treasure, it took our attention away from Afghanistan.”
Updated 11:05 a.m. ET: When questioned about his support for Israel — an issue that came up at the time of his nomination, Hagel said, “I have always said I’m a supporter of Israel. … We have a special relationship with Israel, we always have had. I’ve never voted against Israel (for financial support and other measures) in the 12 years I was in the Senate.”
He added that some Israeli officials, including the ambassador to the United States, have made positive comments about his nomination.
Chuck Hagel arrives to meet with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., in the Hart Senate Office Building on Jan. 23. Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call.
Updated 10:55 a.m. ET: Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., asked why Hagel thought the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supported his confirmation as defense secretary, to which Hagel responded: “I have a difficult enough time with American politics. I don’t know.”
Updated 10:43 a.m. ET: On imposing sanctions on Iran, Hagel acknowledged he voted for some unilateral sanctions and voted against others. The times he voted against them, he continued, was when the United States was working on garnering support for international sanctions.
When asked about sequestration — deep spending cuts to the Pentagon’s budget if Congress doesn’t come up with alternatives by March 1 — Hagel said it’s not just a reduction in dollars, but it takes away the flexibility from managers over the budget.
Updated 10:23 a.m. ET: Hagel said in his opening statement that the United States must maintain the strongest military in the world, lead in the international community and use all of its tools to protect American citizens and interests, and engage — not retreat — from the world.
“Our nation is emerging from more than a decade of war … that does not mean that the threats we face or will continue to face are any less dangerous,” he said, citing militant activity in Mali, Yemen and Somalia.
He said he would continue the work of the Obama administration, including withdrawing most troops from Afghanistan but keeping some to help with counterterrorism, training and advising Afghan forces.
The Defense Department is “rebalancing” its resources toward the Asia-Pacific region, protecting against threats such as North Korea’s nuclear capacity, and expanding networks for counterterrorism and fighting piracy at sea, Hagel said.
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