POLITICS

Hagel Confirmation Hearing Opens With More Deflection Than Defense

01/31/2013 01:34 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2013

In the morning session of his confirmation hearing for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel struck a largely conciliatory tone, deflecting the most confrontational questions from Republican senators over his foreign policy views and largely declining to engage in the details of their critiques.

Hagel's approach seemed designed to avoid miring the former Republican senator from Nebraska in a messy debate about some of the hot-button issues that had dominated headlines in recent weeks, including his controversial stance on gays in the military and his pro-Israel bona fides.

But his reticence also appeared to irritate members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who sought direct responses to their "fundamental differences of opinion," as one of them, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), put it.

After repeatedly trying to get Hagel to respond to a yes-or-no question about whether he stood by his past remarks that the surge in Iraq would prove to be a dangerous mistake, McCain said that Hagel's "refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not."

It was a pattern that repeated over the morning, frustrating both Hagel opponents and supporters alike. During a fraught exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) over Hagel's work to reduce America's nuclear arsenal, the nominee declined to defend the proposals of a bipartisan panel he participated in last year, describing them instead as a series of hypothetical "illustrations."

"Let me correct some of your interpretation of what the global zero report was and what it actually said," Hagel said. "Here is the key part to all of this ... Bilateral, never unilateral. Nothing was suggested on a unilateral basis to take down our arsenal."

In fact, the report, called "Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture," refers to its "illustrative plan" as a series of proposals and makes numerous judgments about how to draw down the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including a possible unilateral effort.

"The less good approach would be to adopt this agenda unilaterally," the report says, before emphasizing that "a strong case" can be made nevertheless that it could be done without weakening U.S. nuclear deterrence against Russia or China.

At another point, asked by McCain whether the U.S. ought to impose a no-fly zone over Syria or deliver weapons to the rebel forces, Hagel similarly demurred, saying that he believed the Obama administration was considering those actions, but "I don't know the details, I'm not there now."

In some ways, Hagel's reticence also reflected a determination to not let his personal views trump the positions of the administration in which he hopes to serve. Asked at one point about the possibility of containing a nuclear Iran -- rather than putting all focus on preventing the country from acquiring nuclear weapons -- Hagel seemed to suggest that he would support the former option.

Then he was quietly handed a note by an aide, and he asked to clarify that his view was the same as the administration's: prevention.

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