Hagel faces hostile, sometimes awkward, GOP opposition in confirmation hearing

By the seventh hour, the E-Ring had lost count of how many times Chuck Hagel had told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) that he supports the state of Israel, maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

The list of concerns by conservative members of the panel that Hagel faced in his confirmation hearing on Thursday did not spread much beyond those items. Instead, Hagel repeatedly responded to similar questions, often linked to particular moments from his past, little known beyond the hearing room: floor speeches in the 1990s, votes in 2001, or his refusal to sign a letter supporting Israel in 2000.

Hagel anticipated as much, pleading in his opening statement to take his record on the whole.

“I cast over 3,000 votes and hundreds of committee votes. I’ve also given hundreds of interviews and speeches, and written a book. So, as you all know, I am on the record on many issues,” Hagel said. “But no one individual vote, quote, or statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record.”

In the weeks leading up his confirmation, Hagel was criticized for being weak on Israel, nuclear weapons, Iran, and more. But none of those charges seemed to stick, especially as giants of national security like Bob Gates, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, and Thomas Pickering lined up to support Hagel.

However, the many letters of support Hagel received did not stop the Republicans on SASC from attacking their former colleague -- more aggressively than many expected. Conservatives spent much of the hearing repeatedly asking Hagel about a letter in support of Israel that he refused to sign while in the Senate, and about a May 2012 report he co-authored for Global Zero, the anti-nuclear weapons advocacy group.

The Senate committee is now led by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who stumbled in his debut as ranking member during a major nominee's confirmation hearing. Sitting in the seat formerly occupied by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), now parked one seat to the right, Inhofe opened his statement by complaining Hagel had not provided sufficient copies of speeches he was as paid for while out of office, a concern atop nobody's list before Thursday. Inhofe last week already said he had too many fundamental differences with Hagel to confirm his nomination.

When McCain did get his turn, he noted that one's disagreement with a nominee's positions is not supposed to be a reason to oppose a presidential nominee; but competence to do the job is.

“Members of this committee will raise questions reflecting concerns with your policy positions,” McCain argued. “They're not reasonable people disagreeing; they're fundamental disagreements. Our concerns pertain to the quality of your professional judgment.”

But then McCain dropped the competence line and raised his voice, repeatedly demanding that Hagel say he was wrong to oppose the 2006 U.S. troop surge in Iraq. But Hagel would not bite:

SEN. MCCAIN: Do you -- do you stand by that -- those comments, Senator Hagel?

MR. HAGEL: Well, Senator, I stand by them because I made them. And --

SEN. MCCAIN: You stand by -- were you right?

MR. HAGEL: Well --

SEN. MCCAIN: Were you correct in your assessment?

MR. HAGEL: Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out, but I'll --

SEN. MCCAIN: I think -- we -- committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.

MR. HAGEL: I'll explain why I made those comments, and I believe I had, but --

SEN. MCCAIN: I want to know if you were right or wrong. That's a direct question. I expect a direct answer.

MR. HAGEL: The surge assisted in the objective. But if we review the record a little bit --

SEN. MCCAIN: Will you please answer the question? Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect?

MR. HAGEL: My --

SEN. MCCAIN: Yes or no?

MR. HAGEL: My reference to the surge being both dangerous --

SEN. MCCAIN: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That's a pretty straightforward question.

MR. HAGEL: Well --

SEN. MCCAIN: I will -- I would like to answer whether you were right or wrong, and then you are free to elaborate.

MR. HAGEL: Well, I'm not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today.

SEN. MCCAIN: Well, let the record show that you refused to answer that question.

Now please go ahead.

MR. HAGEL: Well, if you would like me to explain why --

SEN. MCCAIN: Oh, I actually would like an answer. Yes or no.

MR. HAGEL: Well, I'm not going to give you a yes or no.


MR. HAGEL: I think it's far more complicated than that. As I've already said, my answer is I'll defer that judgment to history.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also became unusually hostile toward Hagel. Graham focused on Hagel’s perceived lack of support for Israel, and later told FP’s The Cable in the Senate hallways that the chances of him voting for the nominee looked grim.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said, “I'm a little -- more than a little troubled by the report that you participated in, Global Zero report, that calls for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”

“It didn't propose or call for anything,” Hagel said. “It was -- in fact, the word specifically used at the front end of that report was ‘illustrative,’ proposing nothing but laying out different scenarios and possibilities and schedules.”

Other Republican waved the same report, several times.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) pressed Hagel on whether he supports direct negotiations with Iran.

“I don't have a problem with engaging. I think great powers engage. I think engagement is clearly in our interests,” Hagel replied. “That's not negotiation. Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender. I think if the time is right, the climate's right, the dynamics are right, we should find ways if we can find ways. We can't force it. But I think we're always smarter and wiser to take that approach initially.”

There was no in-depth talk of the war in Afghanistan. Hagel said he supports the sooner-than-later timeline, as Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) put it, for the troop withdrawal, backing President Obama's timeline. There was little talk of the $1 trillion in defense spending cuts the Pentagon is facing if sequestration occurs in little more than one month. There was barely any mention of China, the Asia “pivot” strategy, the spread of terrorism across North Africa and the Middle East, or the future of NATO.

Instead, there was Sen. Ted Cruz, the new Texas Republican, who earlier attacked Hagel on cable TV, saying his support for the military this week was “less than ardent.” In Thursday’s hearing, Cruz brought theatrics not often seen in the Armed Services Committee. He played television clips of Hagel responding to callers on an al-Jazeera news program in 2009. Cruz claimed they demonstrated that Hagel did not support Israel and agreed that the United States was a global bully. Cruz also had a staffer hold a giant white sign with a partial quote of Hagel’s from the Senate floor, which the nominee later argued was out of context. In the quote, Cruz said Hagel accused Israel of a "sickening slaughter" of Hezbollah, pulling out that phrase. Hagel said the phrase referred to the blood split on both sides.

Cruz’s clips -- and his point -- were lost on Hagel and the panel, who watched quizzically. The takeaway was Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), explaining that he permitted Cruz the “rather unusual” occurrence of playing the clips only if Cruz would provide a written transcript of the clip for everyone to judge, which Cruz failed to do.

“I didn't hear it the way that Senator Cruz did,” said Levin.

The only question left unanswered was how many of Hagel’s critics on the panel, now that they have had their chance to go on the record with their concerns, actually will vote against one of their own.

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call