Former Sen. Chuck Hagel came under harsh criticism from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday for controversial views on Iran’s nuclear arms, the United States military surge in Iraq, plans to cut nuclear forces, and critical remarks about Israel.
Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, walked back several of his most controversial positions on Iran and Israel during the contentious hearing, repudiating many statements and policies he once advocated as a senator.
Iran’s regime is an "elected, legitimate government," Hagel said under questioning from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), who asked why the nominee would support negotiations with Tehran in light of its clear terrorist connections.
Several senators questioned Hagel’s comments that the "Jewish lobby" had forced U.S. senators to adopt "dumb" policies.
Hagel said he should have used the term "pro-Israel" lobby and that they had sought to "influence" U.S. policies instead of saying that it "intimidates" senators.
"I’ve already said I regret referencing the Jewish lobby," Hagel told senators. "I should have said pro-Israel lobby. I think it’s the only time on the record I’ve ever said that."
Hagel additionally apologized for saying that the pro-Israel lobby engages in "dumb" and "stupid" behavior.
"I should not have said ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ because I understand, appreciate there are different views in these things," Hagel said.
Hagel refused to answer a question posed by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) during a contentious exchange regarding Hagel’s comment in 2007 that the U.S. military surge in Iraq was a "blunder" and the military engagement a "quagmire."
"Were you correct in your assessment?" McCain asked.
"Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel said.
"I want to know if you were right or wrong. That's a direct question. I expect a direct answer," McCain said, adding "your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong … is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not."
On nuclear weapons, Hagel was questioned by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), chairman of the armed services strategic forces subcommittee, about recent efforts to backtrack on his support for an international anti-nuclear weapons forum called Global Zero and a report by the group that advocated sharp cuts in U.S. nuclear forces.
The Global Zero report called for the total elimination of land-based ICBMs and tactical nuclear arms, in talks with Russia or unilaterally by the United States.
Hagel asserted that Global Zero "didn’t propose or call for anything" and that other administrations had proposed such bilateral, not unilateral arms cuts.
Quoting the Global Zero report, Session stated that it called for either bilateral cuts with Russia or cuts to be "implemented unilaterally."
"I don't believe that's consistent with the policy of the country as a whole," Sessions said.
Sessions said he was troubled by Hagel’s anti-nuclear views.
"I believe the secretary of defense should be the core, the rock-solid person for defense of America," Sessions said. "I believe he should project an image of solidity and steadfastness that the whole world and American people can depend on. And I'm more than a little troubled by the report that you participated in, Global Zero report, that calls for the total elimination of nuclear weapons and clearly suggests that's an achievable goal in a realistic period of time, although certainly not immediately."
Hagel challenged other Republican senators on the report claiming the study was not a prescription for U.S. nuclear forces during later testimony.
Congressional aides said Hagel has sought to walk back his anti-nuclear views during recent meetings with senators, in an apparent effort to win support for his confirmation.
Democrats praised Hagel for his having served in combat during the Vietnam War.
However, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin questioned Hagel’s past comments that sanctions on Iran are a wrong approach to dealing with the Tehran regime.
"I believe that while effective multilateral sanctions are preferable, that unilateral sanctions are an important part of the approach that the Obama administration has followed and that Congress has supported, and it appears that sanctions are producing tremendous pressure on Iran," Levin said.
Hagel later said he supports the Obama administration’s sanctions-oriented approach to dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), ranking member of the committee, questioned Hagel for his positions on dealing with Iran.
"Given that Iran, the people—I’m quoting right now from Iran—people of the Middle East, the Muslim region and North Africa, people of these regions hate America from the bottom of their heart," Inhofe said to Hagel during a contentious back-and-forth. "It further said Israel is a cancerous tumor in the heart of the Islamic world."
"They further said Iran’s warriors are ready and willing to wipe Israel off the map. The question I’d like to ask you, and you can answer for the record if you’d like, why do you think the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?" Inhofe asked.
Hagel did not answer the question.
"I have a difficult enough time with American politics, senator," Hagel replied. "I have no idea, but thank you. And I’ll be glad to respond further for the record."
Hagel also misspoke in response to a question about policy toward Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Hagel stated that he supports President Obama’s "position on containment" of Iran’s nuclear program. However, the administration has clearly stated that they do not endorse containment—or containing a nuclear-armed Iran.
Hagel was forced to clarify his remarks.
"I was just handed a note that I misspoke that I said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say that we don’t have a position on containment," he said.
Hagel also provided a misleading answer to the panel regarding the status of a USO port in Israel when Hagel headed the military service organization.
"I kept the Haifa USO open. We didn’t close it," Hagel told senators. "There was a lot of pressure when I took over the World USO to close USO’s around the world and we did. There was a lot of pressure to close the Haifa USO."
While Hagel ultimately did decide to keep the port open, he only did so after Jewish community leaders applied pressure.
Hagel told Jewish leaders during a tense 1989 meeting that he did not want to pay for the Haifa USO and that the "Jews [should] pay for it," according to those present in the meeting.
Hagel’s performance during the morning session was criticized on Twitter by his allies and critics, many of whom appeared disappointed with his answers.