Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing Jan. 31. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Amid a flurry of Republican-lobbed allegations, Chuck Hagel reiterated on Thursday his Iraq war criticisms, promised to confront Iran and defend Israel, and said the U.S. military would remain the world’s best even with deep funding cuts.
Hagel, President Obama’s pick for defense secretary, endured a day-long Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing. During the epic session, Republican panel members hit Hagel hard on his past comments and votes on Iran’s nuclear program and the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Hagel vowed to continue the Obama administration’s current level of defense and other aid to Israel. He vowed to support the Iron Dome and David’s Sling weapon systems — though he would not commit to upping funding for either, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., insisted. Hagel said he would need to meet with the Joint Chiefs and assess the Pentagon’s budget situation before making statements about those — or any — weapon systems.
Notably, Hagel broke somewhat over pending reductions to planned defense spending with the man he would replace, Leon Panetta, who has said those $500 billion, 10-year cuts would create a “hollow force.” Hagel, however, told the panel that even if those cuts are triggered March 1 via a process known as sequestration, the U.S. military would remain the most technically advanced in the world.
Hagel said sequestration would pose a “severe problem,” but vowed under his watch the military would be “ready to deal with it.”
The nominee reiterated prior statements from defense officials that training would be harmed under sequestration.
“The security of this country is not going to be in jeopardy, but it’s going to be difficult,” Hagel said. “It’s going to affect longer-term kinds of planning.”
Late in the hearing, Hagel tried to move himself more in line with Panetta than during his morning comments, saying the Pentagon could have a “very, very constrained budget” if sequestration occurs.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor, said people in his commonwealth — which has a big military and defense-industry footprint — are very concerned about Congress’ use of continuing resolutions to fund the Defense Department. Hagel agreed that CRs hurt the military.
Hagel told the panel that when making budget and program decisions, he would examine Washington’s strategic interests and then “how you do it.” And in a sign he knows internal service-on-service budget battles are coming as the Pentagon’s slice of the federal budget pie continues to shrink, he said, “The chiefs have an interest to look out for their services.”
At several points, under questioning from Democratic members, Hagel refused to commit to buying specific numbers of new weapon systems such as nuclear submarines. Hagel said he won’t yet take specific stances on platform numbers because “I don’t know enough.” But, if confirmed, he vows to learn.
Asked specifically about his plans for the U.S. Navy, Hagel offered a window into his thinking about the U.S. military’s force structure: “Our fleet is small but mighty.”
On nuclear weapons, Hagel’s critics have hit him for a report by the Global Zero group that laid out options, including for a nuclear arms-free world. Repeatedly, GOP senators quoted from various options identified in the report, saying it “called for” various things, including for Washington to divest itself of its entire nuclear arsenal.
Hagel told Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., that the Global Zero report’s title and contents focused largely on “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear fleet, “not eliminating it.”
Fischer and Hagel sparred a bit over the report’s contents, with him telling her — as he did all day with Republican members — it was “illustrative” but made no formal recommendations. That was not good enough for Fischer, nor other GOP senators, prompting her to charge, “When you co-author a report, you should be able to answer questions about it.”
For his part, Hagel replied, “I do not agree with any proposal that would unilaterally” reduce U.S. nuclear arms.
But most of the hearing was devoted to Republican allegations that Hagel is too anti-Israel and unwilling to take on Iran over its nuclear-arms ambitions. Some GOP and pro-Israel critics have charged Hagel would advise Obama against taking military action. Not so, he shot back in his prepared statement.
“As I have made clear, I am fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and — as I’ve said in the past — all options must be on the table to achieve that goal,” Hagel said.
“My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment, and the president has made clear that is the policy of our government. … As secretary of defense, I [would] make sure the [Defense] Department is prepared for any contingency.”
Hagel did push back at some points, saying he believes in engaging America’s enemies because it is sometimes the wisest option. “Engagement is not appeasement,” Hagel declared, not long after Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., accused him of being “an appeaser.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., late in the session offered a rare bit of GOP agreement with Hagel, saying, “I agree that engagement is not weakness.”
But she said that should not apply to Iran, which she dubbed “the biggest state sponsor of terror.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., landed some of the hardest blows against Hagel, repeatedly asking him about a now-infamous 2008 comment he made about pro-Israel lobby groups’ influence on Capitol Hill. Hagel said those groups “make us do dumb things.” Graham pressed Hagel for an example of something “dumb” Congress has done as a result, and for a senator who is intimidated by that alleged lobby.
Hagel admitted he could not give an example for either.
Graham insisted Hagel sign a letter vowing U.S. solidarity with Israel, and minutes later a Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., urged Hagel to sign the letter during a planned break for votes on the Senate floor.
If he did, it’s unclear what kind of an impact it would have on garnering ample votes during a Senate floor vote.
Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left the nominee a bit bloodied after pushing him intensely for several minutes about comments Hagel made during a 2009 appearance on the Al-Jazeera television network. Cruz even defied SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., by playing several video clips — Levin asked him to read from printed transcripts.
Cruz said flatly that in that clip, Hagel voiced total agreement with a caller’s charge that Israel has in the past committed war crimes. The clip “is highly troubling,” an animated Cruz said loudly.
Hagel appeared caught off guard by the charges, but managed to state he does not believe Israel is guilty of war crimes.
Cruz also panned comments Hagel made on the Senate floor, charging that Hagel alleged Israel had carried out a “sickening slaughter” in fighting against Hezbollah. “If Israel was defending itself, there was slaughter on both sides…” but Cruz cut him off.
Cruz, a young flamethrower, went back at Hagel, saying the former senator “went on a foreign network” to spread anti-American “propaganda.”
Reports surfaced shortly after showing Hagel actually said there was a slaughter on both sides of the Israel-Hezbollah fighting.
Notably, Levin interrupted the questioning order to note he interpreted the Al-Jazeera clip as Hagel answering another question from the same caller, who said there was a need for American leadership in the Middle East.
Cruz also panned Hagel for what the young Texan called his decision to opt against providing the panel all the required documents about his finances.
The committee should determine it now has an incomplete record of the nominee’s investments, Cruz charged. Hagel later told Levin he checked with DoD legal counsel, who assured him he has complied with all ethical and financial disclosure requirements.
Levin said the SASC could vote on Hagel’s nomination as early as Feb. 7, but that depends on whether the nominee submits more information requested by members.
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.