Outgoing defense secretary ‘disappointed’ by combative questions from Republicans who focused on Israel and Iraq war
Senate opponents to Chuck Hagel have been wielding “political knives” to discredit the White House pick for defense secretary, according to the man he is set to replace.
Outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that he was “disappointed” by the line of questioning Hagel faced during a fiery congressional hearing in the week.
“They talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense in confronting today?” he asked.
On Thursday, Hagel, a Republican former Nebraska senator, was grilled in a series on combative Senate hearings over his views on Israel, nuclear disarmament and the war in Iraq.
Many observers suggested that he came off worse in the exchanges, and appeared at times to be inadequately prepared for the gruelling eight hours of questioning.
Some of the testiest moments from Thursday’s senate hearings came in confrontations between Hagel and lawmakers whom he had served alongside during two terms as a Republican senator, such as former friend John McCain. The pair had a failing out several years ago over Iraq war policy.
“It’s pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel,” Panetta told Meet the Press.
He added that a lot of the focus was on Hagel’s past statements in regard to past statements, rather than ongoing conflict overseas and proposed budget cuts. Opponents to Barack Obama’s Defense Department pick have complained that he is only lukewarm towards America’s traditional Middle East ally, citing a quote in which Hagel appears to criticise the influence of pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington.
In the Senate hearings he also had to counter repeated questions over his stance on nuclear disarmament and why he opposed the troop surge in Iraq.
“What about the war … in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequestering – what impact it’s going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber-attacks?” the Pentagon chief said, pointing out the areas which he believed were neglected in the Senate hearings.
“All of the issues that confront a secretary of defense, frankly … we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues,” Panetta added.
Despite weeks of seemingly ceaseless battering at the hands of largely Republican opponents, the White House is standing by Hagel.
Although some harbour concerns over Hagel’s voting record on gay rights, none of the Senate’s Democrats have publicly abandoned him. It means that minority Republicans would have to resort to procedural tactics to try to block his confirmation.
The nomination appears likely to clear its first hurdle – approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee – on a straight party-line vote. That vote could take place as early as Thursday. The nomination is then voted on by the full Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.