(AXcess News) Washington – After enduring weeks of blistering criticism by his detractors, former senator Chuck Hagel finally got his chance to respond Thursday.
At a Senate hearing about his nomination to become the next secretary of defense, the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska tried to quell fears that he’s anti-Israel and too soft on Iran. Skeptical lawmakers cited Hagel’s infamous statement that the “Jewish lobby” intimidated members of Congress and his votes against Iran sanctions.
Hagel’s fellow Republicans questioned him aggressively, and many of his answers consisted of clarifying old statements and arguing over the details of things he’d written.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tore into Hagel until he apologized for his “Jewish lobby” comment, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sparred with him about the 2007 Iraq war surge, which Hagel has said was a disaster. McCain asked if Hagel still harbored that view, but Hagel said history would be the best judge.
“History has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, ” McCain told Hagel. “And you’re on the wrong side of it.”
McCain continued by asking if Hagel would intervene in Syria, but again, Hagel gave a vague answer.
“How many more would have to die, ” a frustrated McCain asked, “before you would support arming the resistance and establishing a no-fly zone?”
Nearly all the senators repeated the same questions in different ways, and the bulk of their inquiries focused on Hagel’s policy toward Israel and Iran. Saying that he would maintain a strong relationship with Israel, crack down on Iran’s nuclear program and never reduce the United State’s own nuclear arsenal unilaterally seemed to satisfy most of the senators.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney defended Hagel, even as the hearing continued, on his views about U.S. policy about a nuclear Iran, a question that caused Hagel to stumble and reverse himself.
“Senator Hagel’s views on this matter are very much in the mainstream of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and broader public opinion. What’s out of the mainstream are those who are suggesting otherwise,” Carney said.
If he becomes the secretary of defense, Hagel would be the first enlisted soldier and Vietnam veteran to serve in the capacity. He said his priorities, even in the face of budget cuts, would be combating terrorists with improved surveillance technology, preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, unequivocally supporting Israel and ensuring the U.S. remains influential in the Pacific.
Hagel, who had spoken against allowing openly gay soldiers in the military many years ago, reaffirmed a commitment to ensure gay soldiers would be treated fairly and said he’d combat violence against women.
Above all, Hagel said, his term would be characterized by strong support and appreciation of U.S. soldiers and their families.
“No one who volunteers to fight and die for this country should ever feel like they have nowhere to turn, ” he said. “Is our policy worthy of our troops and their families and the sacrifices that we ask them to make? That same question will guide me if I’m confirmed as Secretary of Defense.”