(Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)
Tom Vanden Brook, David Jackson and Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Chuck Hagel, President Obama's controversial choice to head the Pentagon, on Thursday testified that he is proud of his public record, but that no "individual vote, quote, or statement defines me."
"My overall worldview 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," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, has been criticized for statements he has made about Israel and lawmakers have questioned whether he is tough enough on Iran.
At his Senate confirmation hearing Hagel had his first opportunity since being nominated to publicly defend his record and respond to critics.
Hagel used his opening statement to respond directly to the critics, saying he is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He also said as secretary of Defense he would ensure Israel maintain its military edge in the region.
"I'm a strong supporter of Israel," Hagel said during questioning.
Hagel also testified that he would maintain pressure on al-Qaeda in places such as North Africa, Yemen and Somalia.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, accused Hagel of "appeasing" America's adversaries and "shunning" its friends. Inhofe has said he opposes the nomination.
"Retreating from America's unique global leadership role and shrinking the military will not make Americans safe," Inhofe said.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a supporter, noted that Hagel would be the first enlisted man and Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon. Hagel served as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam.
Still, Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said the hearing would explore some of Hagel's earlier remarks.
"We will also be interested in Senator Hagel's addressing troubling statements he has made about Israel and its supporters here in the United States, a statement in 2008 that our policy of non-engagement with the Syrians 'has isolated us more than the Syrians,' and a 2009 statement that we should not isolate Hamas - a terrorist organization," Levin said.
Hagel faced intense questioning from some of the committee's Republicans.
Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and fellow Vietnam war veteran who spent years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said he had "fundamental" concerns about Hagel's judgment.
McCain, R-Ariz., questioned Hagel about his opposition to President Bush's decision to surge additional forces into Iraq in 2007.
McCain pressed Hagel on whether he thought his judgment was mistaken because the surge was successful. "That's a direct question; I expect a direct answer," McCain said.
Hagel said history would be the ultimate judge.
"I think history has already made a judgment on the surge and you were on the wrong side of it," McCain said.
"I did question a surge," Hagel later said. "I always ask the question is this going to be worth the sacrifice."
Obama also questioned the surge while he served as a senator from Illinois. Obama defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
Violence did decline after the surge of forces, though analysts attribute some of that trend to a tribal revolt against al-Qaeda in western Iraq. That was taking place before the surge began.
Hagel was accompanied at the hearing by two former chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican John Warner of Virginia. Warner and Hagel served together in the Senate during Hagel's 12-year tenure from 1997 to 2009.
Both Nunn and Warner praised Hagel and said he remained committed to a strong national defense.