WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary on Thursday defended his views of the military and global threats, pushing back against criticism that has focused on his past statements on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons. Chuck Hagel told senators that America "must engage - not retreat - in the world," and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.
At his confirmation hearing, the former Republican two-term senator from Nebraska sought to diffuse the barrage of criticism about his past remarks that GOP critics say showed a lack of support for a Middle East ally. Hagel sought to build support for his nomination to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"No one individual vote, quote or statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record," Hagel was to tell the Senate Armed Services Committee in prepared testimony. "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; and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests."
Hagel, 66, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, would be the first enlisted man to become defense secretary, a point that Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., highlighted.
"It would be a positive message for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in harm's way around the world to know that one of their own holds the highest office in the Department of Defense and that he has their backs," Levin said.
Hagel was the lone witness in a jam-packed hearing room at a session that could be crucial in determining whether he will win Senate confirmation and join Obama's second-term national security team. Two former committee chairmen - Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner - introduced the nominee.
Hagel has the announced backing of about a dozen Democrats and the tacit support of dozens more who are unlikely to embarrass the president by defeating his Cabinet pick. One Republican - Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi - has said he will vote for his former colleague.
Six Republicans, including four members of the Armed Services panel, have said they will oppose Hagel's nomination. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top GOP lawmaker on the committee and an opponent of Hagel, almost immediately complained that Hagel had not provided to the committee all of his speeches over the last five years, as requested.
Inhofe said Hagel's record "is deeply troubling and out of mainstream views."
Crucial for Hagel will be the questioning by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Hagel and McCain are fellow Vietnam veterans who once had a close relationship during their years in the Senate, but politics and Hagel's opposition to increased troop numbers in Iraq divided the two men.
McCain has praised Hagel's military service but said he had serious concerns about positions the nominee has taken on various issues. He said he is reserving judgment until after the hearing. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., earlier this month described Obama's selection as an "in-your-face" pick but was a bit less critical this week.
"Who are we getting - the guy today or the guy who said things before?" Graham said Tuesday after a 20-minute meeting with Hagel. Graham said he doesn't doubt Hagel's "personal integrity, but I do have real concerns about his policy positions."
The hearing will be the first time Hagel publicly addresses the criticism that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel or tough enough on Iran. In the past, Hagel has questioned the efficacy of unilateral sanctions on Iran, arguing that penalties in conjunction with international partners made more sense. He has also been criticized for his comments about the influence of a "Jewish lobby" and his past view of gay rights.
He addressed several of the issues in a 112-page questionnaire to the committee in which he said his wartime experience would shape his decisions about using military force.
"I understand what it is like to be a soldier in war," wrote Hagel. "I also understand what happens when there is poor morale and discipline among the troops and a lack of clear objectives, intelligence and command and control from Washington. I believe that experience will help me as secretary of defense to ensure we maintain the best fighting force in the world, protect our men and women in uniform and ensure that we are cautious and certain when contemplating the use of force."
In his responses, Hagel adopted a hard line on Iran and its possible pursuit of a nuclear weapon. He echoed Obama's view that all options are feasible to stop Tehran, praised the rounds of penalties and warned of "severe and growing consequences" if Iran balks at international demands.
Questioned about all options, Hagel said, "If confirmed, I will focus intently on ensuring that the U.S. military is in fact prepared for any contingency."
He said that he would continue to put in place the "smart, unprecedented and effective sanctions against the Iranian regime" that Congress and the Obama administration have adopted in recent years.
The criticism of Hagel has surprised some of Hagel's strongest backers.
"This idea that's being propagated is that he might be soft on adversaries. Chuck Hagel's not soft on anybody, particularly himself," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee, in a conference call with Hagel allies. "He drives hard. He's someone who searches for the right approach and the right policy."