Republican senators tore into Chuck Hagel on Thursday for not being tough enough on Iran, too tough on Israel and too willing to abandon Iraq.
Whether their criticism is enough to derail his nomination to become the next Defense secretary looks to be a long shot. Hagel appears to have the backing of Senate Democrats and at least six Republicans, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.
That would be enough to win confirmation and take the top spot at the Pentagon, succeeding Leon Panetta.
On Thursday, many Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee who caucused with Hagel four years ago gave him an icy reception. Their sharp questioning earned a rebuke from the White House.
The toughest questioning came from one of Hagel's erstwhile allies, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about the 2007 decision to send extra troops to Iraq.
McCain pressed Hagel, who had opposed the surge, if he thought his judgment was mistaken because the surge was successful. "That's a direct question; I expect a direct answer," McCain said.
History would be the ultimate judge, Hagel said.
"I think history has already made a judgment on the surge, and you were on the wrong side of it," McCain said.
"I did question a surge," Hagel later said. "I always ask the question, 'Is this going to be worth the sacrifice?'"
McCain, a former Navy pilot and fellow Vietnam War veteran who spent years as a prisoner of war, said he had "fundamental" disagreements about Hagel's judgment.
Violence did decline after the surge of forces, though military analysts attribute some of that trend to a tribal revolt against al-Qaeda in western Iraq. That was taking place before the surge began.
Obama also questioned the surge while he served as a senator from Illinois. Obama defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
Hagel and McCain were among 77 senators who voted in 2002 to approve the use of U.S. troops in Iraq.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said it's appropriate that senators ask "tough questions" of nominees, but some of the queries to Hagel have lurched into "political posturing." Carney didn't cite any specific senators, but he criticized questions about "the wisdom of the Iraq War," saying they "shed more light on the past than they do on the future."
Thursday's hearings were Hagel's first public opportunity since being nominated to publicly defend his record and respond to critics who have questioned his support for Israel and the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The former senator said that he is proud of his public record, but that no "individual vote, quote or statement defines me."
"My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together," Hagel said.
Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, came under sharp questioning on his commitment to Israel, whether he was tough enough on Iran and his views on nuclear disarmament.
Accompanied by retired senators Sam Nunn and John Warner, Hagel opened his comments by responding directly to his critics, saying he is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
As secretary of Defense, Hagel said, he would ensure Israel maintains its military edge in the region.
"I'm a strong supporter of Israel," Hagel said during questioning. He repeated that sentiment numerous times during the hearing.
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