President Obama's Secretary of Defense nominee faced tough questioning from a former Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran during his confirmation hearing today. Sen. John McCain lit into former Sen. Chuck Hagel for having predicted the 2007 Iraq surge would be a blunder.
Hagel, a Republican who was a U.S. Senator from Nebraska from 1996 to 2009, had called President George W. Bush's decision to boost military forces in Iraq by an additional 20,000 troops "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."
"Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?" McCain asked.
"I would defer to the judgment of history to work that out," Hagel replied before being cut off by McCain, who told him the Senate Armed Services Committee deserved to know if Hagel believes now he was right or wrong on the surge.
What eventually followed was not the simple answer McCain demanded, but a recap of Hagel's criticism of the Iraq War. McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years, pushed Hagel for a simple answer.
"I want to know if you were right or wrong. That is a direct question. I expect a direct answer," a visibly frustrated McCain told Hagel. "Will you please answer the question?"
"Well, I'm not going to give you a yes or no. I think it's far more complicated," Hagel responded. "As I've already said I'll defer that judgment to history."
"I think history has already made a judgment on the surge, sir, and you are on the wrong side of it," McCain said.
In his explanation, Hagel conceded that the surge helped in the objective but he also said his remarks about the surge were linked to his overall criticism of the Iraq War. He and Democratic Senators at the hearing noted that the U.S. launched the Iraq War on the basis of false claims of weapons of mass destruction.
"I think that [war] was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam," he said. Not only did that "war of choice" cost the U.S. in blood and treasure, he said, but it took the focus off the war in Afghanistan, "which was the original and real focus of the national threat to this country."
"I don't know that [surge] would have been required and cost us over 1,000 American lives," Hagel said.
Hagel said he tries to frame questions or issues in the broader context. Supporters of Hagel have said in the past weeks that his opposition to the surge and the Iraq War are why Hagel should lead the Defense Department.
Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, in his opening remarks, highlighted Hagel's combat experience and said it was one of the things that made him a great choice to become the Secretary of Defense.
"When we talk of going to war . . . we need to think it through carefully, not just for the political and the geopolitical and the diplomatic and the economic consequences – and those are important," Levin said. "Someone needs to represent [the combat troops'] perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys who come back in the body bags."
Hagel would be the first enlisted veteran to serve as Defense Secretary, Levin pointed out.
"It would be a positive message for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in harm's way around the world to know that one of their own holds the highest office in the Department of Defense and that he has their backs," Levin said.
Hagel said he was a small part of the Vietnam War, someone who was over there doing a job. What he saw and experienced there informed his actions in Congress, he said.
"I saw [war] from the bottom," he said. "It directly formed me and goes to Sen. McCain's question about the surge. I have one fundamental question that I asked myself in every vote I took, in every decision I made – was the policy worthy of the men and women we were sending into battle, and surely to their deaths?"
Tens of thousands of American families now live with the result of the votes on the Iraq War and the surge, he said.
"It's easy here – it is anywhere – if you don't have a connection to some of this to see these things a little differently," he said. "It doesn't mean I'm any better, doesn't' mean I'm smarter, or more appreciative of the service to our country – that's not it. I saw it [war] from the bottom. I saw what happens. So I did question the surge. It wasn't' an aberration to me, ever. I always ask the question is this going to be worth the sacrifice? Because there's always going to be sacrifice.
About 1,200 Americans died during the surge, he said.
"Was it required, was it necessary? Sen. McCain has his own opinion on that, shared by others. I'm not certain that it was required," Hagel said. "It doesn't mean I'm right, it doesn't mean I didn't make wrong votes, but that [war experience] is what guides me."