It was never going to be easy for Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska whom President Obama tapped to lead the department of defense. His erstwhile colleagues in the GOP had promised to give him a tough hearing over his foreign policy positions, including his fierce opposition to the Iraq War, his perceived hostility toward Israel, and his dovish positions on Iran. And a tough hearing is what he received, with Republican senators grilling Hagel for hours in what turned into a seat-squirming spectacle for the decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. Here, three key moments from round one of the hearing, which continued Thursday evening after a recess:
1. McCain presses Hagel on the Iraq surge
In the most contentious exchange of the hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) questioned Hagel relentlessly on the 2007 surge, in which tens of thousands of American reinforcements were deployed to prevent Iraq from spiraling into civil war. Hagel opposed the surge, and McCain grew vexed when Hagel would not answer whether he believed the strategy had worked.
"Are you going to answer the question?" McCain demanded.
"I'm not going to give you a yes or no," Hagel responded. "I'll defer that judgment to history."
"History has already made a judgment on the surge, and you're on the wrong side of it," McCain snapped.
2. Hagel apologizes for statements on Israel
Hagel has been slammed by conservatives for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. He has also been criticized for once describing the powerful pro-Israel lobby as the "Jewish lobby," and for saying the Israel lobby used its clout to "intimidate" members of Congress. During his hearing, Hagel apologized for using the term "Jewish lobby," and said "intimidate" was a poor choice of words.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pressed Hagel on his past statements, saying, "Name one person in your opinion who was intimated by the Israeli lobby." Hagel responded, "I didn't have in mind a specific person." Hagel also defended his allegiance to Israel, saying, "I never voted against Israel in my 12 years in the Senate."
3. Hagel bungles Obama's position on Iran
In the most obvious gaffe of the hearing, Hagel said he backed the Obama administration's policy of "containment" with regards to Iran, when in fact the administration opposes containment. (The government's position is that Iran must not obtain a nuclear weapon.) An aide handed Hagel a note, and he quickly made a correction: "Obviously, we don't have a position on containment." To clarify the U.S.'s policy, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said, "We do have a position on containment, which is we do not favor containment."
Hagel also had to explain why he voted against imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran in 2000 and 2001. "We were at a different place with Iran at that time," he said.
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