WASHINGTON – Chuck Hagel came under tough questioning on Iran and Israel from
Republicans, and even some Democrats, during his Thursday confirmation hearing
to be the next US secretary of defense.
He downplayed controversial
statements, including a comment published in 2008 that “the Jewish lobby
intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill.
Hagel said that “pro-Israel
lobby” would have been more accurate, as would have been the word “influence.”
He added that he should not have referred to letters in support of Israel
circulated by groups such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee as
Sen. Lindsey Graham (RSouth Carolina) pressed him on those
remarks, challenging him to name a person who had been influenced or a wrong-headed policy that had been supported because of lobbying by organizations
such as AIPAC, which Hagel declined to do.
Senators on the Armed Services
Committee repeatedly questioned changes in his views on Iran, ranging from the
utility of a military option to his backing for unilateral sanctions, as well as
the depth of his support for Israel.
Hagel, a former Republican senator
from Nebraska, stated several times that it was important for the US to maintain
Israel’s qualitative military edge and to provide additional funding for missile
defense programs such as Iron Dome, even in the face of expected cuts to the
“That support I have always made clear,” he told the
committee, which will soon vote on whether to approve his nomination, which
would then need to be considered by the full Senate.
Hagel also came
under fire from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), who questioned him about
statements he had made in 2006 suggesting that a military option against Iran
was not responsible or viable. She argued that was inconsistent with his recent
clarifications that all options for ending Iran’s nuclear program should remain
on the table, a position he strongly backed Thursday.
“My point was that
this would not be a preferable option.
There would be consequences to
this option,” he said of his previous words against a strike on Iran. “If we
could find a better option, a better way to deal with Iran to ensure they do not
get nuclear weapons, then we’re far better off. That was the context of that
He did acknowledge, however, that he had previously opposed
unilateral – though not multilateral – sanctions on Iran and the designation of
the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, positions at odds with
those of the Obama administration.
Hagel explained that he did not vote
in favor of the Revolutionary Guard Corps designation because he feared it could
be interpreted as authorizing force against Iran, a position he suggested he
would revisit if the vote were taking place today. “It was never a question of
did I disagree with the objective,” he stressed.
Though senators often
behave with some deference in confirmation hearings when a colleague is
nominated, and crossaisle support can be increased by a bipartisan choice, in
Thursday’s hearing Hagel was on the defensive for most of his
Even Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee chairman,
and someone who had previously indicated his support for Hagel’s nomination by
calling him “well-qualified,” included in his opening remarks a reference to the
senator’s “troubling statements” about Israel.
Ranking Member James
Inhofe of Oklahoma made clear that he would be voting against Hagel and listed a
series of sharp policy disagreements.
Though Democrats make up the
majority of the Senate, it is not guaranteed that all 55 will back Hagel.
Additionally, Republicans could choose to filibuster the nomination, in which
case he would need 60 supporters to get confirmed.
Going into Thursday’s
hearing, it seemed likely that Hagel would get the necessary votes.
the contentious nature of the proceedings raised questions about whether he
would muster the requisite support.