Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator picked by President Barack Obama as his new Secretary of Defence, had a rocky audition on Capitol Hill today as he sought to fend off criticism of his past positions on such hot-zone topics as relations with Israel and Iran and the war in Iraq.
Especially terse was an exchange with Senator John McCain who pressed him on why he opposed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq which by most reckonings helped turn the tide in the conflict and bring relative order to the country.
Mr Hagel is on the record saying at the time that it would be the “most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”. Was he wrong, Mr McCain demanded to know? Yes or no.
If any wavering Republicans on the panel were waiting for an excuse to vote against confirming Mr Hagel, then this might have been it. The former senator refused to oblige Mr McCain with an up-and-down response, suggesting it was for history to judge if the surge had been the correct strategy. “I think history has already made a judgement …and you were on the wrong side of history,” Mr McCain fired back.
An orchestrated campaign to discredit Mr Hagel had sprung up even before today’s hearings. Perhaps most perilously, he is accused of having displayed ambivalence about defending Israel and about stopping Iran building a nuclear weapon, also a first Israeli priority. He has also been hauled up for alleged anti-gay bias for having called an ambassadorial nominee “openly, aggressively gay” over fifteen years ago.
Mr Hagel’s record “is deeply troubling and out of mainstream views,” Senator Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the panel, contending, playing to an underlying theme that the ex-senator would be too soft on America’s enemies and too loathe to put boots on the ground. Mr Hagel, who in spite of the rough ride may yet squeak through to replace Leon Panetta, insisted that his positions had been unfairly characterised.
“No one individual vote, quote, or statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” he said. “My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together; and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests.”
During most of his twelve years as a Senator representing Nebraska, Mr Hagel was a close friend of Mr McCain’s. They are both veterans of Vietnam and often travelled together to Iraq and to Afghanistan. That friendship was seen to have fallen apart, however, precisely because they took directly opposing positions on the 2007 surge. It was that squabble that burst back to life today.
“This committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge,” Mr McCain blustered staring at his old friend. “I want to know if you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.” When Hagel didn’t give one, he responded: “Let the record show you refused to answer that question”.