President Obama's pick to lead the Pentagon testified in a confirmation hearing before a Senate panel on Thursday. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, faces opposition chiefly from members of his own party. Senators grilled him over his support for Israel, American policy toward Iran, and cutbacks in the defense budget.
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President Obama's nominee to lead the Pentagon spent the day getting grilled by his former colleagues in the Senate. Chuck Hagel is a Republican and President Obama picked him in part as a gesture to the GOP. But today's hearing did not feature a lot of bipartisan warmth. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, it was Hagel's stellar Republicans who gave him the toughest time and forced him to defend his record.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hagel got right to the point today, taking on the main arguments against him step by step in a carefully scripted statement. First, that he is not a strong enough friend of Israel. Hagel has been critical of that country's treatment of Palestinians and of pro-Israel lobbying groups.
CHUCK HAGEL: 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 terrorist rocket attacks.
BOWMAN: Next, Pentagon spending. Hagel avoided what he said in the past, that the defense budget is bloated. Today, he was more diplomatic.
HAGEL: If confirmed, I am committed to effectively and efficiently using every single taxpayer's dollar the right way.
BOWMAN: Finally, that he is soft in Iran. His critics complained he voted against some sanctions when he was a senator and has favored negotiation rather than harsher tactics.
HAGEL: I am fully committed to the president's goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
BOWMAN: Hagel acknowledged that as a senator more than a decade ago, he voted against U.S.-only or unilateral sanctions on Iran rather than what he has called more effective sanctions that includes cooperation with allies.
HAGEL: Matter of fact, I recall the Bush administration did not want a renewal during that time because they weren't sure of the effectiveness of sanctions.
BOWMAN: That wasn't the only time Hagel looked for a lifeline from former Republican presidents. When pressed by Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma about his calls for cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Hagel said he was not for unilateral cuts, and said Washington must take the lead and seek further reductions.
HAGEL: There was no more significant voice for that than Ronald Reagan. Paraphrasing President Reagan: We must eliminate nuclear warheads from the face of the Earth.
BOWMAN: Democrats today didn't so much defend Hagel on all these points, instead they wanted to focus on Hagel's military record and service in Vietnam. Here's Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
SENATOR JACK REED: There are very few people in this country with the experience as a combat infantryman, decorated and wounded, as someone who every day understands that the decisions we make will be carried out by young Americans.
BOWMAN: And Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.
SENATOR BILL NELSON: There are a few of us in this room that served in the military during the Vietnam era, and you clearly had that experience in combat.
BOWMAN: Experience that left him seriously wounded and the recipient of two Purple Hearts. Hagel easily parried with the Republicans today, until he faced Senator John McCain of Arizona. McCain questioned what he called the quality of Hagel's professional judgment. McCain supported the surge of troops in Iraq back in 2007, which helped tamped down violence there. Hagel opposed the surge.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: You stand by that - those comments, Senator Hagel?
HAGEL: Well, Senator, I stand by them because I made them and...
MCCAIN: You stand by - were you right?
MCCAIN: Were you correct in your assessment?
HAGEL: Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out, but I'll...
MCCAIN: I think the committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.
BOWMAN: Hagel wouldn't answer. And he said the issue wasn't the surge, it was what he called the war of choice in Iraq.
HAGEL: Our war in Iraq, I think, was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam.
BOWMAN: Hagel has also been wary of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, again citing Vietnam. Senator McCain asked Hagel if he supported President Obama's decision to surge forces in Afghanistan three years ago. Hagel said no. The question now is whether the Senate will say yes and confirm Hagel as the next secretary of defense. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.