WASHINGTON – Chuck Hagel says his experience fighting in Vietnam alongside his younger brother will shape any decision he makes to unleash military force if the Senate confirms him to be President Barack Obama’s defense secretary.
On the eve of his confirmation hearing, Hagel offered his opinions on a long list of issues, from cuts in defense spending and women in combat to penalties against Iran, in a 112-page response to a questionnaire from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
It was the first time that Hagel’s voice had been heard in such detail since Obama announced nominees for his second-term national security team on Jan. 7.
“I understand what it is like to be a soldier in war,” wrote Hagel. “I also understand what happens when there is poor morale and discipline among the troops and a lack of clear objectives, intelligence, and command and control from Washington. I believe that experience will help me as secretary of defense to ensure we maintain the best fighting force in the world, protect our men and women in uniform and ensure that we are cautious and certain when contemplating the use of force.”
If confirmed, the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska would be the first enlisted man to serve as defense secretary.
Hagel described volunteering for Vietnam, serving a 12-month tour that included the Tet Offensive in 1968 – a series of surprise North Vietnamese attacks on South Vietnam and its U.S. ally during a holiday cease-fire – and rising to the rank of infantry sergeant.
In his responses, Hagel adopted a hard line on Iran and its possible pursuit of a nuclear weapon. He echoed Obama’s view that all options are feasible to stop Tehran, praised the rounds of penalties and warned of “severe and growing consequences” if Iran balks at international demands.
Hagel has faced a barrage of criticism that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel or tough enough on Iran. In the past, Hagel has questioned the efficacy of unilateral sanctions on Iran, arguing that penalties in conjunction with international partners made more sense.
Hagel was in line for hard questions from the 26-member Senate committee at a confirmation hearing today that was expected to be a determining factor in the vote of several senators.
Democrats have rallied to support Obama’s nominee. More than a dozen are announced backers, and at least one Republican senator has said he will vote for his former GOP colleague – Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee.
But GOP-leaning outside groups have waged an unprecedented campaign of critical ads and statements against the president’s Cabinet choice. Six Republican senators have said they will vote against Hagel, including some who opposed him even before Obama’s announcement, in a fresh sign of the fierce partisan politics.
Hagel’s opponents have focused on his past statements about Israel, Iran, gay rights and the influence of a “Jewish lobby,” a comment for which he’s apologized. They also worry about his support for cuts in nuclear weapons.