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Hagel, McCain Clash Over Iraq Surge at Hearing

Thursday, 31 Jan 2013 09:53 AM

Chuck Hagel clashed with Sen. John McCain Thursday over the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq, with the nominee for defense secretary refusing to say whether the escalation succeeded.

The confrontation of raised voices at Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee exposed anew a long-festering rift over the Iraq war that has helped fuel antipathy toward Hagel among some fellow Republicans.

“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” McCain demanded of Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who opposed the influx of troops under President George W. Bush.

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“I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out,” Hagel said.

“History has already made a judgment on the surge, sir, and you were on the wrong side of it,” said McCain, a fellow Vietnam War veteran who called Hagel an “old friend.”

Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is confronting skepticism and outright opposition from members of his own party, who have questioned his support for Israel, his enthusiasm for tough sanctions on Iran and his willingness to shield the defense budget from sharp spending cuts.

The choice of Hagel, 66, who earned two Purple Hearts for being wounded as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, has produced the first and contentious confirmation fight of Obama’s second term.

Anticipating criticism over past positions and comments that have spawned weeks of attacks, Hagel said his record includes more than 3,000 Senate votes, hundreds of interviews and speeches and a book.

“But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs or my record,” he said.

In his opening statement to the panel, Hagel said, “We will not hesitate to use the full force of the United States military in defense of our security. But we must also be smart, and more importantly, wise ... in how we employ all of our nation’s great power.”

While Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the committee, said Hagel has “critically important qualifications to lead the Department of Defense,” the panel’s top Republican reasserted his opposition to the nominee.

“On many of the security challenges facing U.S. interests around the world, Sen. Hagel’s record is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream,” Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said. “Too often, it seems, he is willing to subscribe to a world view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.”

In addition to their tangle over Iraq, McCain pressed Hagel on whether he would support establishing a no-fly zone in Syria and arming the Syrian rebels. When Hagel said those measures would be reviewed, McCain asked, “How many more would have to die before you could support” taking those actions?

Even before Obama announced his choice of Hagel on Jan. 7, opposition quickly mounted. The attacks included a flurry of cable television ads from groups such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, headed by William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard magazine, and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official and leader of an advocacy group called American Values.

Rejecting the criticism, Hagel told his hometown newspaper, The Lincoln Journal Star of Nebraska, that “distortions about my record have been astounding.”

In one instance of bipartisan support, Hagel was introduced Thursday by two former chairmen of the Armed Services Committee: Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican John Warner of Virginia.

Retired generals and diplomats such as former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles also have rallied to Hagel’s defense.

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An opponent, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), said Wednesday Hagel has been changing his positions in a political ploy to garner Senate votes.

“He just wants to win approval from members of this chamber in what we might call a confirmation conversion,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor.

Thad Cochran of Mississippi was the only Republican senator to say in advance of Thursday's hearing that he supported Hagel.

On issues that may determine the fate of his nomination, Hagel said Thursday that “all options must be on the table” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He pledged to “ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge” in the Mideast and praised Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, “which is today saving Israeli lives from terrorist rocket attacks.”

Hagel also said he had “serious concerns” about the automatic across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, that will take effect in March unless Congress and Obama agree on an alternative.

On issues that may appeal to Obama’s Democratic base, Hagel also promised to fully implement the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented gay troops from serving openly, and to work with the military services to open ground combat positions to women.

Hagel, who built a reputation in the Senate as an independent thinker on foreign policy, favors international cooperation and coalition-building over unilateral U.S. action. While Hagel supported the resolution authorizing the war in Afghanistan, he became critical of the prolonged U.S. counterinsurgency effort and the troop surge there.

In choosing a Republican as defense secretary, Obama is following in the path of Democratic President Bill Clinton, who picked Republican Sen. William Cohen of Maine for the job in his second term. Through much of Obama’s first term, he kept George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, in the job.

Hagel would be “the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of defense, one of the few secretaries who’ve been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department,” Obama said in announcing the nomination at the White House on Jan. 7.

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Chuck Hagel clashed with Sen. John McCain Thursday over the 2007 U.S.troop surge in Iraq, with the nominee for defense secretary refusing tosay whether the escalation succeeded.Their confrontation of raised voices at Hagel s confirmation hearingbefore the Senate Armed...

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