‘Will you please answer the question?’

January 31, 2013

Republican Senator John McCain angrily dismissed defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel as stubbornly camped “on the wrong side” of history when it comes to Iraq, and openly doubted whether he could support the confirmation of his former comrade and fellow Republican. The heated exchange between the two men, both decorated Vietnam War veterans, was the most notable in a series of testy verbal duels as Hagel faced some of his fiercest critics in the Senate.

McCain welcomed the former senator by saying he was “pleased to see an old friend” before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but immediately ripped into “the quality of your professional judgment.” (Politico’s David Chalian noted on Twitter that the Arizona lawmaker’s tone suggested that “old friend” really meant “ex-friend.”)

McCain, a champion of the troop surge in Iraq, hammered Hagel over his opposition to that escalation of the war and demanded Hagel admit that he was wrong to warn it could turn out to be a Vietnam-level debacle. After labeling Hagel’s concerns “bizarre” and “nonsense,” McCain demanded to know whether the nominee stood by his criticisms and asked, “Were you right or wrong about the surge?”

“I stand by ‘em because I made ‘em’,” Hagel replied. “I would defer to the judgment of history.”

As Hagel offered to “explain” his remarks, McCain cut him off. “I want to know whether you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question, I expect a direct answer.”

“The surge assisted in the objective,” Hagel said. “But if we review the record a little bit—”

“Will you please answer the question?” McCain jumped in. “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? Yes or no?

“Were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question,” McCain said.

“I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer,” Hagel said. “If you would like me to explain why—”

“No, I actually would like an answer, yes or no,” McCain said, cutting him off.

“I’ll defer that judgment to history,” Hagel repeated. But he added that his Vietnam comments referred to “the overall war of choice, going into Iraq” and called the March 2003 invasion “the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam.”

“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it,” McCain said. “And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not.”

“I hope you will reconsider,” McCain said.

Both McCain and Hagel voted in favor of going to war in Iraq, but Hagel later turned sharply against the conflict, often echoing then-senator Barack Obama’s accusation that the invasion diverted resources from Afghanistan.

Earlier, Hagel pleaded with senators not to judge him based on controversial past remarks—like his warning against the “Jewish lobby”—or on single votes he cast during his Senate career.

“No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel said in his opening remarks.

The former senator from Nebraska faces fierce opposition from some Republicans who say he would undermine America’s national security ties to Israel and does not take the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program seriously enough. Hagel is expected to be confirmed—but not without a fight.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday that he disagreed with Hagel on a range of issues, but he called Hagel a “smart, capable guy” who deserves a full hearing. And even some of Hagel’s most forceful opponents, like Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, have to date stopped short of vowing to filibuster his nomination.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, charged that Hagel would promote “a worldview that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends” and bluntly called him “the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time.”

In his remarks, Hagel took aim directly at some of his critics—and sought to reassure lawmakers who might be on the fence.

“I will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its Qualitative Military Edge in the region and will continue to support systems like Iron Dome, which is today saving Israeli lives from terrorists’ rocket attacks,” he said.

“I am fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and—as I’ve said in the past, many times—all options must be on the table to achieve that goal,” he said, using diplomatic language that refers to the use of military force. “My policy has always been the same as the president’s—one of prevention, and not one of containment—and the president has made clear that is the policy of our government.”

Hagel’s years in the Senate haven’t endeared him to many Republican lawmakers still smarting over his outspoken criticism of the Iraq war even after he voted to authorize the U.S. invasion. Hagel’s position on the war sealed his reputation as a party outsider and led him to lend tacit support to President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Hagel has been criticized for opposing unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran in the past—a position he now embraces—and calling for direct talks between Tehran and Washington without preconditions. He has also raised questions about his support for Israel and at one point criticized the “Jewish lobby” as having too much clout in Washington.

“Like each of you, I have a record. A record I am proud of, not because of any accomplishments I may have achieved or an absence of mistakes, but rather because I’ve tried to build that record by living my life and fulfilling my responsibilities as honestly as I knew how and with hard work,” the former senator 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. I believe, and always have, that America must engage—not retreat—in the world. My record is consistent on these points.”

Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam and still carries shrapnel in his chest, would be the first former enlisted soldier to head the Pentagon.

He was introduced by two retired senators with long careers on the committee: Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican John Warner of Virginia. After a lengthy opening tribute, Warner got laughs from the room when he turned to Hagel and declared: “You’re on your own. Good luck!”

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