Former Sen. Chuck Hagel on Thursday faced a barrage of criticism about his fitness to be the next defense secretary, including his agreement with a controversial statement that the United States is the "world’s bully."
President Barack Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary ran into sharp opposition from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee who questioned Hagel on an array of controversial policies.
Senators questioned Hagel about his opposition to tough U.S. policies toward Iran, his calling the successful U.S. military surge in Iraq a "blunder," and his support for sharp unilateral cuts in U.S. nuclear forces.
Hagel also backtracked on past statements that a "Jewish lobby" was intimidating the Senate into adopting "dumb" policies.
Hagel maintained a calm demeanor but at several points in the hearing appeared unprepared for some questions during seven hours of testimony.
Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), in his first public appearance as a member of the committee, played portions of a 2009 Al Jazeera interview in which Hagel was asked how the United States could lead in reducing nuclear arms when the "perception and the reality" views the United States as "the world’s bully."
Hagel, in the video, responded saying: "Well, her observation is a good one, and it's relevant. Yes, to her question."
A visibly upset Cruz then asked Hagel during the hearing: "Sen. Hagel, do you think it's appropriate for the chief civilian leader of the U.S. military forces to agree with the statement that both the perception, quote, ‘and the reality’ is that the United States is, quote, ‘the world's bully’"?
Hagel disagreed with the email and said his comment was a "relevant and good observation."
"With respect, I think the record speaks for itself," Cruz said. "It was in writing that she said the U.S. is the world's bully, that it is the reality. And your response—you did say you agree with it. You said her observation is a good one, it's relevant; yes to her question. You explicitly agreed with the characterization of the United States as the world's bully."
"I think the United States has spilled more blood, more treasure standing for freedom, liberating people across the world," Cruz said. "And to go on Al Jazeera, a foreign network, broadcasting propaganda to nations that are hostile to us, and to explicitly agree with the characterization of the United States as the world's bully, I would suggest is not the conduct one would expect of a secretary of defense."
The exchange was one of several heated debates between the former Nebraska Republican and Republican committee members.
Democrats uniformly supported the nominee during the hearing, noting Hagel’s record as a senator from 1997 to 2009 and his experience as an enlisted soldier during the Vietnam War.
"It would be a positive message for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in harm's way around the world to know that one of their own holds the highest office in the Department of Defense and that he has their backs," said Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.).
Leading the opposition was Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), who said he is opposing Hagel for the post.
"[Hagel’s] record demonstrates what I view as a lack of steadfast opposition to policies that diminish U.S. power and influence throughout the world, as well as a recent trend of policy reversals that seem based on political expediency rather than on core beliefs," Inhofe said.
Hagel was pressed by several senators to explain controversial comments on Israel and the American Jewish community.
Hagel has sought to distance himself from those remarks in the weeks prior to the committee hearing, although some lawmakers have questioned his sincerity.
"Name one person, in your opinion, who is intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said. "Name one," Graham insisted after Hagel sidestepped the question.
"I don't know," Hagel said.
"Well, why would you say it?" Graham asked.
"I didn't have in mind a specific person," Hagel said, declining to explain his controversial comments.
"Do you agree it's a provocative statement, that I can't think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said?" Graham said. "Name one dumb thing we've been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby."
"I have already stated that I regret the terminology I used," Hagel said.
Under questioning from Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) Hagel was asked about his 2003 comment that Israel keeps "Palestinians caged up like animals," Hagel recanted.
"If I had an opportunity to edit that, like many things I’ve said, I would like to go back and change the words and the meaning," Hagel said in a comment that surprised some observers. "I’ve said many, many things over many years."
"If I had a chance to go back and edit it, I would," he added. "I regret that I used those words."
Hagel also backtracked on his opposition to a measure designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.
"If you had a chance tomorrow—today, after lunch, to vote to say that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was a terrorist organization, would you still vote no?" Graham asked.
"Well, times change," Hagel said. "I recognize that. And yes, I would reconsider."
Hagel continued to face questions about his past opposition to U.S. sanction on Iran. He confirmed that he was responsible for blocking a 2008 Iran sanctions measure.
"I was one of some Republican senators who did not want that vote to go forward," Hagel replied to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.). "I voted against it in subcommittee."
Hagel maintained at multiple points in the hearing that he now supports tough sanction on Iran.
Hagel said if he is confirmed, a top priority would be to "continue bringing our troops home [from Afghanistan] and end the war, which has been the longest war, as we all know, in America's history."
A second priority would be to continue actions against terrorist organizations expanding in places like Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa.
Hagel also said he is committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
He also promised to continue nuclear reductions in both warheads and launchers as part of the U.S.-Russian New START treaty.
"America's nuclear deterrent over the last 35 years has played a central role in ensuring global security and the avoidance of a World War III," Hagel said. "I have been committed to that. My record is clear on that. I am committed to modernizing our nuclear arsenal."
Rebalancing U.S. military forces for the Asia Pacific also will be a priority, he said.
"If confirmed, I'm committed to effectively and efficiently using every single taxpayers' dollar the right way, to maintain the strongest military in the world and to working with Congress to ensure the department has the resources it needs and that the disposition of those resources is accountable," Hagel said.
Defense budget cuts are set to take effect March 1 when $660 billion in cuts over 10 years will be imposed under the Budget Control Act unless a compromise is reached.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), considered a crucial moderate, appeared to turn sharply against Hagel over the former senator’s characterization of the 2007 U.S. military surge of troops in Iraq as a "blunder."
"Were you correct in your assessment?" McCain asked.
"Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel said.
McCain demanded a clear yes or no answer several times. Hagel repeatedly declined to respond in such a manner.
"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 vote for your confirmation or not."
Hagel’s association with the anti-nuclear group Global Zero also drew sharp attacks from Republicans who questioned whether the top civilian official in charge of nuclear weapons supports deep cuts in nuclear arms, including the elimination of all land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and that the cuts could be made unilaterally by the United States.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, asked Hagel 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.
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, Sessions stated that the report called for either bilateral cuts with Russia, or reductions "implemented unilaterally."
"I don't believe that's consistent with the policy of the country as a whole," Sessions said, adding that 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."
Democrats praised Hagel for his having served in combat during the Vietnam War.
However, Levin questioned Hagel’s past comment that imposing sanctions on Iran is 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.