Former Republican Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel came under intense questioning from his former colleagues Thursday, being cross-examined in prosecutorial style by fellow Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as the Senate Armed Services Committee opened hearings on President Obama's nomination of Hagel for Secretary of Defense.
Perhaps the most contentious questioning came from McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran and former political ally of Hagel, when McCain insisted on a "yes" or "no" answer from the former senator on whether he was wrong in calling the 2007 troop surge in Iraq the "worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam."
When Hagel began to respond with an explanation, McCain several times interrupted to insist on a "yes" or "no" answer, after which Hagel could "elaborate."
"Well, I'm not going tot give you a 'yes' or 'no,'" Hagel said, insisting that the answer was much more complicated.
"Let the record show he refused to answer," said McCain. Hagel said that some 1,200 more Americans lost their lives during the surge, which many have credited with reducing the level of violence and stemming the terrorist tide in Iraq, but that he was willing to "let history be the judge" of whether the benefits were worth the cost. McCain said history had already rendered its judgment.
"And you were on the wrong side," he told Hagel. The Arizona senator and 2008 presidential nominee said Hagel's opposition to the surge and his refusal yesterday to answer whether he was right or wrong at the time will weigh heavily on whether or not he will vote to confirm Hagel to head the Department of Defense.
McCain and Hagel are both decorated veterans of the Vietnam War. Hagel was wounded in that conflict and McCain, a Navy pilot, was shot down and imprisoned for five and one-half years in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison compound in North Vietnam. McCain was a Navy officer, while Hagel was a combat NCO. If confirmed, Hagel would be the first veteran from the enlisted ranks to serve as Secretary of Defense.
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Photo of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) before Senate Armed Services Committee: AP Images