Republican senators hammered US President Barack Obama’s nominee for US defense secretary at his confirmation hearing on issues ranging from Israel and Iran to his support for a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. However, with most Democrats in his corner, an unflustered Chuck Hagel seems headed for approval as Pentagon chief.
Hagel, a former Republican two-term senator from Nebraska, on Thursday described his views as mainstream and closely aligned with those of Obama, the Democrat who nominated him.
As a senator, Hagel often broke with Republican ranks, including his eventual criticism of the Iraq war, which Obama also opposed.
Several Republican members of the Armed Services Committee sought to portray him as radical and unsteady during the hearing on Thursday.
Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska called his ideas “extreme” and “far to the left” of Obama.
Despite the sharp questioning, Hagel was likely to be confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
After the daylong hearing, committee Chairman Carl Levin said the panel could vote as early as next week.
Hagel said he believes the US “must engage — not retreat — in the world,” adding that his record is consistent on that point.
He pointed to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as an example of an urgent national security threat that should be addressed first by attempting to establish dialogue with Iranian rulers, although he said he would not rule out using military force.
“I think we’re always on higher ground in every way — international law, domestic law, people of the world, people of the region to be with us on this — if we have ... gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible, peaceful way, rather than going to war,” he said.
He pushed back on the notion — first raised by one of his harshest Republican critics, Senator James Inhofe — that he favors a policy of appeasement.
“I think engagement is clearly in our interest,” Hagel told Senator Saxby Chambliss, who denounced the idea of negotiating with a “terrorist state.”
“That’s not negotiation,” Hagel said. “Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender.”
Hagel, the lone witness in a jam-packed hearing room, spoke out forcefully for a strong military while trying to explain 12 years of Senate votes and numerous statements.
Hagel, 66, would be the lone Republican in Obama’s second-term Cabinet, the first Vietnam veteran to be defense secretary and the first enlisted man to take the post.
Republicans repeatedly questioned Hagel about a study that he co-authored in May last year by the advocacy group Global Zero that called for an 80 percent reduction of US nuclear weapons and the eventual elimination of all the world’s nuclear arms.
The group said that with the Cold War over, the US can reduce its total nuclear arsenal to 900 without sacrificing security.
Currently, the US and Russia have about 5,000 each, either deployed or in reserve. Both countries are on track to reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018, the number set in the New START that the Senate ratified in December 2010.
Hagel insisted that the report was merely illustrative and said it was not realistic to consider unilateral nuclear weapons reductions.