Politics

January 31, 2013

Republicans hammer Secretary of Defense nominee Hagel

Hagel, 66, would be the lone Republican in Obama's Cabinet and the first enlisted man to hold the post.

By ERNESTO LONDO The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee as defense secretary, confronted withering criticism during a marathon confirmation hearing Thursday, but administration officials said they felt confident that the Republican-led attacks did not derail his bid to lead the Pentagon.

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Republican Chuck Hagel, a former two-term senator and President Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon, arrives at the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. Former committee chairman, Democrat Sam Nunn, left, introduced Hagel. If confirmed, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, would be the first enlisted man to serve as defense secretary. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, asks a question of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, President Barack Obama's choice for defense secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the committee, listens at left. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Young Hagel volunteered for Vietnam

Chuck Hagel says a funny thing happened on his way to the Vietnam War as an Army private 45 years ago.

He almost went, instead, to Germany as one of nine soldiers entrusted with a top-secret shoulder-fired missile designed to shoot down Soviet MiG fighters in the event the Soviets launched an invasion of Western Europe.

After two months of training on the weapon in New Mexico, and while packing up for his flight to Germany, Hagel decided he'd rather go to an actual war – Vietnam. His Army superiors, however, seemed to doubt the sanity of that choice and decided it better take a closer look at his motives for volunteering for combat.

It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, and not a lot of enlisted men were begging to get there.

"They brought priests, rabbis, ministers, psychiatrists -- all came in to examine me, thinking something was wrong, (thinking) I was running away from something or I'd killed somebody," Hagel recalled in testimony Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to be secretary of defense.

He said he underwent two days of tests, was deemed fit of mind and body, got his orders for Vietnam and soon headed for the war front, arriving in December. He was wounded twice in combat and returned home in 1968.

If confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Hagel, 66, would be the first former enlisted soldier and first Vietnam veteran to serve as defense secretary.

Lawmakers from both parties spent roughly eight hours grilling Hagel about remarks he has made at various points of his career and the votes he had cast in the Senate. The nominee at times struggled as he sought to explain his past positions, in some cases distancing himself from them. He nonetheless offered a full-throated endorsement of the U.S. alliance with Israel, insisted that he has never advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament and called Iran an existential threat.

An administration official said the combative nature of the hearing did not come as a surprise for a nominee who has faced more sustained and personal opposition than any of Obama's Cabinet picks. "There's no indication that this is peeling off any support that was there before today," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The ranking Republican senator on the Armed Services Committee set the tone for the confirmation hearing for Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska with a reputation for bluntness but also nuanced foreign policy views.

"Why do you think that the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?" Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., asked Hagel, in an apparent reference to an Iranian news agency report conveying hope from the Islamic republic that Hagel's confirmation would bring "practical changes" in U.S. policy.

Hagel appeared defensive, frustrated and lethargic during much of the hearing. But none of the zingers or missteps appeared serious enough to sway a significant number of senators to vote across party lines. Democrats outnumber Republicans on the committee 14 to 12, and administration officials and analysts said the vote would probably fall along party lines.

"None of the votes that probably would have been for him have shifted," said Steve Clemons, a fellow at the New America Foundation who supports Hagel's nomination. But he expressed surprise by the lack of charisma the seasoned politician displayed on the witness chair. "Hagel, who can be hilarious, didn't show much of that today," Clemons lamented.

Hagel's nomination has triggered sustained criticism since his name was first suggested for the job in December. Previous remarks and votes on issues ranging from sanctions against Iran to the propriety of having an openly gay ambassador became fodder for a barrage of ads and an intense lobbying campaign that has sought to doom his nomination.

During his opening statement, Hagel defended his record, saying he always acted with integrity but acknowledging that it was not devoid of "mistakes." If he is confirmed, Hagel said, he would run the Pentagon guided by a long-held philosophy: "Is our policy worthy of our troops and their families and the sacrifices that we ask them to make?"

One of the first bruising lines of questioning came early, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Hagel whether he regretted his opposition to the 2007 troop surge in Iraq.

"Were you right?" McCain asked sternly, eliciting a response that he seemed to find inadequate.

"I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel said, refusing repeatedly to provide a yes-or-no answer.

(Continued on page 2)

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