Former senator Chuck Hagel speaks at his confirmation hearing on Jan. 31. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Republican senators tore into Chuck Hagel Thursday for not being tough enough on Iran, too tough on Israel and too willing to abandon Iraq.
Whether their criticism is enough to derail his nomination to become the next Defense secretary looks to be a long-shot. Hagel appears to have the backing of Senate Democrats and at least six Republicans, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.
That would be enough to win confirmation and take the top spot at the Pentagon from Leon Panetta.
On Thursday, many Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee who caucused with Hagel four years ago gave him an icy reception. Their sharp questioning earned a rebuke from the White House.
The toughest questioning came from one of Hagel's erstwhile allies, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about the 2007 decision to send extra troops to Iraq.
McCain pressed Hagel, who had opposed the surge, if he thought his judgment was mistaken because the surge was successful. "That's a direct question; I expect a direct answer," McCain said.
History would be the ultimate judge, Hagel said.
"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."
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" disagreements about Hagel's judgment.
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.
Obama also questioned the surge while he served as a senator from Illinois. Obama defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
Hagel and McCain were among 77 senators who voted in 2002 to approve the use of U.S. troops in Iraq.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said it's appropriate that senators ask "tough questions" of nominees, but some of the queries to Hagel have lurched into "political posturing." Carney didn't cite any specific senators, but did criticize questions about "the wisdom of the Iraq war," saying they "shed more light on the past than they do on the future."
Thursday's hearings were Hagel's first public opportunity since being nominated to publicly defend his record and respond to critics who have questioned his support for Israel and the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
"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," Hagel said.
Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, came under sharp questioning on his commitment to Israel, whether he was tough enough on Iran and his views on nuclear disarmament.
Accompanied by retired senators Sam Nunn and John Warner, Hagel opened his comments by responding directly to his critics, saying he is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. As secretary of Defense, Hagel said, he would ensured Israel maintains its military edge in the region.
"I'm a strong supporter of Israel," Hagel said during questioning. He repeated that sentiment numerous times during the hearing.
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.
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.
Nevertheless, Levin, D-Mich., said he wanted to explore some of Hagel's "troubling statements he has made about Israel and its supporters here in the United States.
Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, and Virginia Republican Warner gave Hagel a bipartisan pair of wing men at the hearing. Warner and Hagel served together in the Senate during Hagel's 12-year tenure from 1997 to 2009. Both Nunn and Warner are past chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
They praised Hagel and said he remained committed to a strong national defense.
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Read the original story: Hagel defends record, sets priorities at Senate hearing