“I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out,” Hagel said, refusing repeatedly to provide a yes-or-no answer.
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-Qaeda only twice, while Israel got 178 mentions and Iran 169.
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.”
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 the 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.”
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.
Hagel struggled when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.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.”
Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.