US senators assail Hagel in heated hearing

Hagel downplays controversial statements, including comment published in 2008 that “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.”

Chuck Hagel speaks in Islamabad 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mian Kursheed)
Chuck Hagel speaks in Islamabad 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mian Kursheed)
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 “stupid.”
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 Pentagon’s budget.
“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 statement.”
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 testimony.
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.
But the contentious nature of the proceedings raised questions about whether he would muster the requisite support.