Chuck Hagel joked Thursday about his rocky beginning as defense secretary while stressing that his many critics failed to shake his core belief in exhausting every avenue for compromise before seeking confrontation with potential U.S. enemies.
“Don’t start out with our differences” in dealing with rogue states, Hagel said. “Start with our common interests.”
The changing nature of warfare in a modern world in constant political flux “isn’t going to make it simpler for any of us” involved” in the nation’s defense, Hagel said, but in his view the 2.4 million men and women of the armed forces still have “so much potential to do so much good in so many different ways. Together we will make this a better world.”
Hagel, the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, spoke in the Pentagon’s auditorium before an audience of foreign ambassadors, top brass, enlisted troops, Cabinet members, former Senate colleagues and even five members of his Vietnam unit from the Army’s 9th Division, In which he served as a Sergeant and was awarded two Purple Hearts.
Also on hand was Alex Trebek, host of the popular “Jeopardy” TV gameshow, who had met Hagel on USO tours.
The audience had come to see a ceremonial re-enactment of Hagel’s swearing-in as the 36th Secretary of Defense, with Vice President Joe Biden administering the oath. Biden joked that Hagel’s service as a non-com “should scare the hell out of you generals” in the audience.
Hagel was flayed at his Senate confirmation hearings, mostly by Republicans, who charged that he was lukewarm at best in his support for Israel and soft on Iran and North Korea. The critics also charged that Hagel had a Pollyanna view on the efficacy of diplomacy in dealing with potential threats.
Hagel at times appeared fumbling and defensive in the back-and-forth with aggressive questioning from the senators, but he was eventually confirmed 58-41 on a mostly party-line vote.
At the Pentagon, Hagel noted that Biden “was in the U.S. Senate for my confirmation hearing. I’m a better person for it,” Hagel said to laughter from the audience.
And contrary to what Biden had said earlier, Hagel said “I have nothing against generals” and added that he had met with a bunch of them earlier. “I’m a better person for it,” Hagel said to more laughter.