Chuck Hagel grilled by GOP critics in hearings

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WASHINGTON -- Republican senators hammered former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearing yesterday on issues ranging from Israel and Iran to his support for a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. But with most Democrats in his corner, an unflustered Hagel seems headed for approval as defense secretary.

Hagel, who was a two-term senator from Nebraska, described his views as mainstream and closely aligned with those of President Barack Obama. Several GOP members of the Armed Services Committee sought to portray him as radical and unsteady. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) called his ideas "extreme" and "far to the left" of Obama.

Hagel said he believes America "must engage -- not retreat -- in the world," and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.

He pointed to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as an example of an urgent national security threat that should be addressed first by attempting to establish dialogue with Iranian rulers, although he said he would not rule out military force.

He pushed back on the notion, first raised by one of his harshest Republican critics, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, that he favors a policy of appeasement.

"I think engagement is clearly in our interest," Hagel told Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who denounced the idea of negotiating with a "terrorist state." "That's not negotiation," Hagel said. "Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender."

After the daylong hearing, committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the panel could vote as early as next Thursday if Hagel quickly provides additional material requested by some members.

The fiercest exchange came with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a fellow Vietnam veteran and onetime close friend. Politics and Hagel's evolving opposition to the Iraq War caused a split between the two men that was on full display.

McCain pressed Hagel on whether he was right or wrong about his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to send a "surge" of 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost.

"Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?" McCain asked.

"I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel said as the two talked over each other.

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