Former Sen. Chuck Hagel took a hard line on Iran before a Senate confirmation panel, but spent much of Thursday defending or explaining past statements.
Hagel said all options were on the table in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but refused to draw a "red line" that would trigger U.S. military action.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Hagel's nomination to be the next defense secretary, and several Republican members -- including John McCain of Arizona and freshman Ted Cruz of Texas -- subjected him to tough questioning.
The hearing ended at about 5:50 p.m. EST.
Republicans spent much of the day confronting Hagel with past statements and positions they said showed a softness on Iran and an antagonism toward Israel. Hagel backtracked on some statements, but largely insisted he was being quoted out of context, or that his views were being distorted. Often, he was cut off in mid-response.
Hagel, R-Neb., said he agrees with all of President Barack Obama's positions on national security, including Iran.
"I am committed to the president's goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Hagel said, adding all options were on the table.
He said the president's policy was prevention, not containment of Iran, and he would make sure the Defense Department was prepared for all contingencies.
Under prodding from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Hagel said a "red line" or trip-wire that would launch U.S. military action "should not be discussed publicly or debated publicly."
"I think the president has gone as far as he should go publicly on that," Hagel said.
Under questioning from Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., Hagel said, "The military option must remain on the table," along with diplomatic and economic measures.
Among the goals he shares with the president, Hagel said in his opening statement, are continued U.S. counterterrorism in Afghanistan and training that country's security forces, and maintaining pressure on terror groups in the Middle East and North Africa.
He said he and the president are committed to keeping Israel's "edge" in military affairs in the region.
Also, "I am committed to maintaining ... a strong nuclear arsenal," he said. "I am committed to modernizing our nuclear arsenal."
Hagel told the senators massive spending cuts in a "sequester" would be a disaster for the Pentagon.
"America must engage in the world, not retreat from the world," he said.
Hagel also put in a plea for bipartisanship.
"We cannot allow the work of confronting the great threats we face today to be held hostage by partisanship on either side of the aisle," Hagel said, promising to "reach out" to the committee for advice if he is confirmed.
Hagel later agreed with senators from both parties that cyberthreats posed a danger to the United States.
"This is a huge issue that continues to loom large over our future and our security," he said.
Republicans on the panel were generally much more negative than Democrats in questioning Hagel. Democrats outnumber Republicans 14-12 on the committee.
McCain rapid fired hostile questions at Hagel about past positions.
After calling Hagel his "old friend," McCain repeatedly tried to get Hagel to answer yes or no about opposition to the surge of troops in Iraq during the Bush administration. In 2007, President George W. Bush sent an extra 20,000 troops to Iraq to stabilize the U.S. intervention in that country.
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