Watch CBSN Live

Hagel grilled at confirmation hearing, defends record

Updated: 6:14 p.m. ET

Amid stubborn resistance from Senate Republicans, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., launched a strong defense of both his values and his record during his defense secretary confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, arguing that despite some controversial former positions on Israel, Iran, and gay rights, "no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record."

Hagel, who must gain the support of a majority of the 26 members of the committee in order to face a full Senate confirmation vote, pledged his commitment President Obama's positions on "all issues of national security, specifically decisions that the Department of Defense is in the process of implementing now."

"Our nation's security is the highest priority of our leaders and our government," Hagel said in his opening remarks. "We cannot allow the work of confronting the great threats we face today to be held hostage to partisanship on either side of the aisle."

Hagel's nomination has been controversial from the get-go: Of particular concern to Republicans and many Democrats is his past opposition of some sanctions for Iran; for his having taken stances on Hezbollah and Hamas that critics have decried as overly lenient; and for criticism of what he called "the Jewish lobby," which invoked the ire of pro-Israel advocates. Additionally, Hagel came out as a vocal critic of former President George W. Bush's policies in Iraq.

Democrats, meanwhile, have had their own, added gripes with the pick: In addition to being a Republican, Hagel was targeted for making anti-gay comments about an ambassadorial nominee in 1998, whose nomination he opposed for being "openly, aggressively gay." He also voted on multiple occasions to limit abortion access for American servicewomen abroad.

Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding his record, Hagel today expressed pride in it -- not because, he said, "of any accomplishments I may have achieved, or certainly because of an absence of mistakes, but rather because I've tried to build that record based on living my life and fulfilling my responsibilities as honestly as I knew how and with hard work."

"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," he said.

Republicans were less charitable in their characterization of Hagel's record.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, called it "deeply troubling and out of the mainstream." Of Hagel's worldview, Inhofe said it was "predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a onetime friend of Hagel's who has not committed to vote for him, went after the former senator for his past opposition to the surge in Iraq, and asked him repeatedly whether or not his past assessment was a mistake.

"I'm not going to give you a yes or no answer," Hagel said, when pressed over whether he still believes the surge was, as McCain quoted him having once said, "the greatest foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War." He said he thought the issue was more complicated than could be expressed in a one-word answer, and later explained his reasons for opposing the surge. He said he still wasn't sure whether or not it was necessary.

"I always ask the question is this going to be worth the sacrifice? Because there will be sacrifice," Hagel said. 

As the hearings proceeded, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Tweeted out a statement that he would not be supporting the former Republican senator. 

Even the committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he and his colleagues would be interested in hearing Hagel's explanation of "troubling statements" he has made on a handful of foreign policy issues.

During the hearing, Levin pressed Hagel on his former opposition to sanctions on Iran, and wondered how he would reconcile current support for such actions with past statements suggesting otherwise. 

Hagel noted that the sanctions he had opposed had been unilateral rather than multilateral, and that some in the Bush administration had questioned the effectiveness of the sanctions as well. 

"When I voted against some of those unilateral sanctions on Iran it was a different time," he said. "We were at a different place with Iran during that time...It was never a question of did I disagree with the objective. The objective was, I think, very clear to both of us."

Later, Hagel also argued that while he would be open to a "military option" in Iran "if we have tried and if we have gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible, peaceful way," an openness to engaging with Iran does not equate to surrender.

"I don't have a problem with engaging. I think great powers engage. I think engagement is clearly in our interest," he said. "That's not negotiation. Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender. I think if the time is right, the climate's right, the dynamics are right, we should find ways, if we can find ways."

On his past comments on Israel, Hagel was openly apologetic. He expressed "regret" over his comment regarding the so-called "Jewish lobby," which he said, "I should have said pro-Israel lobby." He also said he should not have, in the same statement, accused that lobby as intimidation but rather used a different word.

"I should have used 'influence,' I think would have been more appropriate," he said.

More broadly, Hagel attempted to alleviate concerns that he would not be a strong advocate for Israel.

"I absolutely support strengthening" the "special and historic" relationship between the U.S. and Israel, he said.

Questioned about gay rights, Hagel pledged to uphold and enforce discrimination laws, and in his opening remarks reiterated his commitment to the ban on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." 

Even while a number of Democrats took Hagel to task for some of his controversial past positions, Levin and others signaled hedged support for his nomination, on the grounds that Mr. Obama, as Levin argued, "needs to have a Secretary of Defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force."

Hagel's confirmation is not a sure bet, but the numbers, for the time being, are on his side. Most Democratic senators appear to have ironed out their issues with the nominee in private, one-on-one meetings, and barring a congressional hold or a filibuster, he can squeak through the confirmation process without the support of his fellow Republicans.

Still, Hagel has virtually no margin of error in his path to confirmation: While no Democrats are promising to vote against him, a number have not pledged to vote in his favor, either. And so far, only one Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has said he will vote in favor of the president's pick, according to MSNBC. Levin said after the hearing he hopes the committee will vote on Hagel next Thursday and, if he clears the committee, it's expected the full Senate would vote shortly afterwards.

In a press briefing that took place in the midst of the hours-long hearing, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated Mr. Obama's faith in Hagel's abilities despite what he called "the usual kind of political posturing" he said takes place in confirmation hearings. 

"I know the president believes very strongly that Sen. Hagel will make an excellent secretary of defense, and he will effectively implement the president's policies," Carney told reporters. "This process is very important, the confirmation process, and it's highly appropriate, and senators ask tough questions of nominees, and nominees answer those questions."

View CBS News In