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Hagel strikes back at critics as hearing begins

Jan. 31, 2013 - 11:22AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 31, 2013 - 11:22AM  |  
Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, arrives Jan. 31 on Capitol Hill in Washington to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination.
Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, arrives Jan. 31 on Capitol Hill in Washington to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination. (Susan Walsh / AP)
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U.S. President Barack Obama's pick to be defense secretary struck back at critics Jan. 31, telling senators he is "proud" of his record while also pledging to confront Iran and defend Israel.

In his prepared remarks, Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "I have a record … I am proud of, not because of any accomplishments I may have achieved, or an absence of mistakes, but rather because I've tried to build that record by living my life and fulfilling my responsibilities as honestly as I knew how and with hard work."

Critics, including pro-Israel groups and Republican senators, have slammed that record, alleging Hagel is too anti-Israel and reluctant to use American military power to become defense secretary. GOP lawmakers and those groups have gotten ample mileage for more than a month from just a few past Hagel quotes and votes — and he addressed those directly.

"But no one individual vote, quote, or statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record," Hagel told the panel.

"My overall world view has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together; and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests," Hagel said. "I believe, and always have, that America must engage — not retreat — in the world. My record is consistent on these points."

While Obama and his incoming secretary of state, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., have signaled engagement will take prominence in the president's second term, Hagel indicated the U.S. military will be needed in what he dubs a "defining time."

"It's clear that we are living at a defining time. Our nation is emerging from over a decade of war. We have brought our men and women in uniform home from Iraq, and have started to bring them home from Afghanistan," Hagel said.

"That does not mean the threats we face and will continue to face are any less dangerous or complicated," the nominee said. "In fact, it is quite the opposite. Recent events in Mali and Algeria remind us of this reality."

What's more, 21st century "complexities, technologies, economies and threats are bringing the 7 billion global citizens closer together," he told the panel. "And as our planet adds another 2 billion people over the next 25 years, the dangers, complications and human demands will not be lessened, but rather heightened."

On Iran, some GOP and pro-Israel critics have charged Hagel would advise Obama against taking military action. Not so, he shot back in his prepared remarks.

"As I have made clear, I am fully committed to the president's goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and — as I've said in the past — all options must be on the table to achieve that goal," Hagel said.

"My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment, and the president has made clear that is the policy of our government," Hagel said. "As secretary of defense, I [would] make sure the [Defense] Department is prepared for any contingency."

The same critics have panned Hagel for weeks over a 2008 interview, in which he said too many U.S. lawmakers are afraid of the "Jewish lobby," and bashed him for things like opting against signing letters about pro-Israel policies.

Hagel vowed in his prepared remarks to ensure Israel retains its military advantage in its neighborhood.

"I [would] ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region and [would] continue to support systems like Iron Dome," Hagel said, "which is today saving Israeli lives from terrorist rocket attacks."

Finally, critics have said Hagel seems too unwilling to unleash America's military around the globe.

Hagel shoot back at those charges, telling the panel: "We will not hesitate to use the full force of the United States military in defense of our security. But we must also be smart, and more importantly wise, in how we employ all of our nation's great power."

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