January 31, 2013

Republicans hammer Secretary of Defense nominee Hagel

Hagel, 66, would be the lone Republican in Obama's Cabinet and the first enlisted man to hold the post.

By ERNESTO LONDO The Washington Post

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Republican Chuck Hagel, a former two-term senator and President Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon, arrives at the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. Former committee chairman, Democrat Sam Nunn, left, introduced Hagel. If confirmed, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, would be the first enlisted man to serve as defense secretary. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, asks a question of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, President Barack Obama's choice for defense secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the committee, listens at left. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Young Hagel volunteered for Vietnam

Chuck Hagel says a funny thing happened on his way to the Vietnam War as an Army private 45 years ago.

He almost went, instead, to Germany as one of nine soldiers entrusted with a top-secret shoulder-fired missile designed to shoot down Soviet MiG fighters in the event the Soviets launched an invasion of Western Europe.

After two months of training on the weapon in New Mexico, and while packing up for his flight to Germany, Hagel decided he'd rather go to an actual war – Vietnam. His Army superiors, however, seemed to doubt the sanity of that choice and decided it better take a closer look at his motives for volunteering for combat.

It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, and not a lot of enlisted men were begging to get there.

"They brought priests, rabbis, ministers, psychiatrists -- all came in to examine me, thinking something was wrong, (thinking) I was running away from something or I'd killed somebody," Hagel recalled in testimony Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to be secretary of defense.

He said he underwent two days of tests, was deemed fit of mind and body, got his orders for Vietnam and soon headed for the war front, arriving in December. He was wounded twice in combat and returned home in 1968.

If confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Hagel, 66, would be the first former enlisted soldier and first Vietnam veteran to serve as defense secretary.

Hagel later said that the Iraq war, including the surge, was the "most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam."

Hagel faced relatively few nuanced questions about the Afghan war or terrorist threats. Afghanistan was mentioned just 27 times, and al-Qaida only twice, while Israel got 178 mentions and Iran 169.

n On Afghanistan, where 66,000 U.S. troops remain deployed, Hagel said he did not have enough knowledge about the war to have an informed opinion about the ideal size for the force the United States might leave behind after its combat mandate expires at the end of 2014. He agreed with a senator's characterization that Obama intends to draw down troops "sooner rather than later."

"I think he's made that very clear," Hagel said. "If I am confirmed, I will need to better understand all the dimensions of this."

n Senators spent a great deal of time pressing Hagel on his views on Iran, demanding to know why he has in the past rejected unilateral sanctions and why he refused to endorse an effort to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

The question elicited one of Hagel's most damaging missteps, as he argued that it would have been unprecedented to add a military unit of an "elected, legitimate government" as a terrorist organization. Senators took exception to that characterization, which Hagel later softened. On the broader question of the best approach to reducing the threat Iran poses, the nominee defended some of his past positions.

"I think it's always wise to try to talk to people before you get into war," he said. He later added: "I never thought engagement is weakness."

n Hagel was also challenged about a comment he made in a newspaper interview in August 2011, in which he was quoted as saying that the Pentagon's budget was bloated. On Thursday, he said he had made the comment before Congress passed a bill that imposed substantial defense cuts. The interview was, in fact, conducted after the bill's passage.

The nominee said he would run the Pentagon in a fiscally responsible manner and rejected the claim that he favors the congressionally mandated across-the-board cuts that could kick in March 1 if the White House and Congress fail to reach a deal on debt reduction.

n Hagel struggled when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-N.C., asked him to expand on his past assertion that the Israeli lobby "intimidates a lot of people" and challenged him to point to a single senator who feels intimidated.

"Name one," Graham said, eliciting a meek response from Hagel, who said: "I do not know."

Later in the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., showed footage of interviews Hagel gave to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television network that appeared to depict him as being sympathetic with viewers who said that Israel had committed war crimes and that the United States was the "world's bully." Hagel on Thursday sought to distance himself from both notions.

"I think my comment was it's a relevant and good observation," Hagel replied. "I don't think I said I agree with it."

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