Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter at @robert_nolan
The Senate Armed Services Committee began its hearing this morning to confirm President Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, former senator Chuck Hagel. Hagel, who I interviewed extensively on national security issues for Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS at the 2012 NATO summit, used his opening statement to respond to the many critics who question his stance on Iran, defense cuts, and the use of American power.
"America must have and maintain the strongest military in the world," Hagel said, adding that the United States must "use all the tools of American power to protect citizens and interests." Outlining a number of global challenges from Afghanistan to North Africa, Hagel reaffirmed his stance that the United States must "not retreat, but engage" with the world, noting that alongside the current roster of national security issues America faces is "an opportunity to create a more hopeful and just world than at any other point in history."
Hagel, a vocal Republican critic of the Iraq war and the scope of the mission in Afghanistan, affirmed support for the president's policy to transition out of Afghanistan, adding that any residual forces there would be contained to two specific tasks—counterterrorism and training and advising Afghan forces.
As budget cuts loom over the Pentagon, Hagel pledged to resource tools needed to face future threats, from special forces, intelligence operations and combating cyber threats. He voiced support for the so-called "pivot to Asia" outlined in the 2012 strategic review put out by the Pentagon, while maintaining that the United States should retain its support for NATO and continue to manage problems in the Middle East and North Africa. And the former senator from Nebraska echoed the president's policy on Iran's nuclear ambitions, noting that "prevention, not containment" would require leaving all options on the table and working closely with Israel. On American nuclear capabilities, Hagel sought to undermine critics of his affiliation with the group "Global Zero," which advocates for a nuclear-free world, by stating that he is committed to a "modern, safe, and effective" U.S. nuclear arsenal.
But the dominating theme of Hagel's opening statement, and the early session of questioning from both supporters and detractors on the committee, was Hagel's commitment to those who serve in the U.S. armed forces, informed by his experience as a decorated combat veteran in Vietnam.
Hagel said the question: "Is our policy worthy of our troops and their families and the sacrifices they choose to make?" would guide his decision making process as secretary of defense, including a financial commitment to veteran's well being. "I will never break the commitment to troops, veterans, and their families to get healthcare and job opportunities they earned and deserve," he said. Hagel also affirmed the need for equality within the military, promising to uphold the recent repeal of the "don't ask don't tell" policy and the recent move to allow women to fight in combat alongside men on the front lines. "No one who fights and dies for this country should ever feel they have nowhere to turn. That is unacceptable."
Whether or not Hagel's former Senate colleagues think he is an acceptable choice to lead the Pentagon is another matter. Hagel faced tough questions in the morning session from Sens. James Inhoff, who placed in doubt Hagel's commitment to Israel and his failure to vote for strong sanctions against Iran in the early 2000s.
"I agree and always agreed with strong unilateral sanctions," against Iran, he said. "When I voted against them it was a different time. We were at a different place with Iran at that time," he added, noting the Bush administration's opposition to sanctions during that period.
Sen. John McCain continued to interrogate Hagel over his opposition to the 2008 "surge" of U.S. troops to Iraq, which many believe helped quell the insurgency during that period. "Were you right or wrong in your assessment," McCain demanded, insisting on a "yes or no answer" that was not forthcoming. Hagel chose instead to defend his judgment that the Iraq war was one of the most dangerous military blunders in U.S. history, a belief shared by much of the public. "We'll have to state for the record that you refused to answer this question," said McCain, adding that this would have in impact on his vote.
The most controversial Senate confirmation hearing of Obama's presidency will continue through this afternoon, and possibly through tomorrow.