President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, faced a brutal line of questioning during his Senate confirmation hearings on Thursday, as he grappled for an adequate defense of his record on Israel and Iran, as well as other pressing issues with which he will be faced if confirmed for the top Pentagon post.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R - South Carolina) pressed Hagel about his 2006 interview with Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller in which he said, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress into doing “dumb things.”
“Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing by the Israeli, Jewish lobby,” Graham demanded.
“I don’t know,” Hagel said, unable to provide names.
He expressed regret for the comments, saying, “I’ve already said I regret referencing the Jewish lobby. I should have said pro-Israel lobby. I think it’s the only time on the record I’ve ever said that.”
He added that he should have said “influence,” not “intimidate.”
“I should not have said ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ because I understand, appreciate there are different views in these things,” he maintained.
“Then why did you say it?” Graham asked. “I can’t think of a more provocative thing to say.”
“The statements you made about Palestinians and about ‘the Jewish lobby,’ all that together” sends “the worst possible message to our enemies and friends,” Graham added.
Hagel, who has long come under fire for his soft stance on Iran, inadvertently said the Obama administration supports “containment,” calling the country an “elected legitimate government.”
Iran is "a member of the United Nations. Almost all of our allies have embassies in Iran ... [It is] an elected, legitimate government, whether we agree or not," he said.
Hagel was also extensively probed by fellow Vietnam War veteran Sen. John McCain and freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both Republicans.
The former Republican senator from Nebraska was caught by surprise when Cruz played two tapes from appearances on Al Jazeera, one of which showed him not challenging a caller who accused Israel of war crimes, and another in which he appeared to agree with the assertion that America is "the world's bully."
"The caller suggests that the nation of Israel has committed war crimes, and your response to that was not to dispute that characterization," Cruz said of the Israel interview. He then asked Hagel directly whether he thinks Israel has committed war crimes.
"No, I do not," Hagel said, while saying he wanted to see the "full context" of the interview.
Cruz called the allegation "particularly offensive given that the Jewish people suffered under the most horrific war crimes in the Holocaust."
"I would also suggest that for ... a prospective secretary of Defense not to take issue with that claim is highly troubling," he continued.