Republican lawmakers harshly attacked Chuck Hagel on Thursday at a contentious hearing over his nomination to become the next U.S. defense secretary, questioning his judgment on war strategy and putting him broadly on the defensive.
In one of the most heated exchanges, influential Senator John McCain aggressively questioned Hagel, interrupting him and talking over him at times. He openly voiced frustration at Hagel’s failure to say plainly whether he was right or wrong to oppose the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.
“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,” McCain said.
Hagel, who like McCain is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, declined to offer a simple yes or no answer, responding: “I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out.”
As President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Pentagon in his second term, Hagel may yet win Senate approval with help from majority Democrats, but he appeared to pick up little fresh Republican support as his hours-long hearing wore on.
Hagel’s fellow Republicans dredged up a series of his past controversial statements on Iran, Israel and U.S. nuclear strategy, trying to paint him as outside mainstream security thinking. Even in polarized Washington, the grilling was highly unusual for a Cabinet nominee.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina laid into Hagel for once accusing a “Jewish lobby” of intimidating people in Washington, comments Hagel repeatedly said he regretted. Asked whether he could name one lawmaker who had been intimidated, Hagel said he could not. It was one of the many times he appeared uncomfortable.
“I can’t think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said,” Graham said.