Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel told senators on Thursday that no single statement defines him, and he is committed to maintaining a strong American role in the world.
"America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world," Hagel said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together."
Hagel also disputed Republican criticism that he has been too critical of Israel and too soft on Iran, telling committee members: "No one individual vote, quote or statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record."
Some highlights from the Hagel hearing:
11:13 a.m. -- Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., comes to Hagel's rescue on objecting to the war in Iraq, noting that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found there.
Nelson also asks Hagel about his war wounds in Vietnam; Hagel demurs, says he'd rather talk about issues.
11:03 a.m. -- A key Hagel critic prompts the day's first major argument: Fellow Vietnam veteran and former Senate colleague John McCain, Republican of Arizona.
McCain goes right after Hagel, citing "fundamental disagreements" about his judgment and views, particularly on the Middle East. He cites Hagel's opposition to the 2007 troop surge in Iran, which the Nebraskan called a Vietnam-like blunder.
Hagel stands by his criticism of the surge, and says history will judge it -- drawing a major back-and-forth with McCain.
"I want to know if you were right or wrong?" McCain says sharply to Hagel, adding it that it's a simple yes or now question and "deserves an answer."
Hagel says it's not as simple as yes or no, and McCain accuses him of refusing to answer his question.
Hagel did go on criticize the concept of the Iraq war, calling it unnecessary; McCain defends the surge, telling Hagel he was "wrong" about it.
McCain also attacks Hagel over policy towards Syria.
10:53 a.m. -- Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., praises Hagel, sayings President Obama made "a wise choice."
At Reed's prodding, Hagel defends his record on Israel: "I have always said I am a supporter of Israel."
Hagel also says President Obama has been as strong an Israel supporter as any White House occupant, and he will back his policies.
10:44 a.m. -- The first critical questioning comes from Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okl., who asks Hagel about past Senate votes on Iran, Syria, Israel and the threat of terrorism.
Inhofe blocks Hagel from explaining these votes, noting that Democrats will let him do that later in the hearing.
Hagel also defends his work with a group that wants to eliminate nuclear weapons.
10:40 a.m. -- Some news from Hagel: Says Gen. John Allen has made recommendations to President Obama about the size of a residual force in Afghanistan after 2014. Hagel does not supply numbers, and says Obama hasn't made a final decision.
10:35 a.m. -- Question time begins with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Agreement, who asked about the impact of automatic budget cuts -- "the sequester" -- on the nation's military.
Hagel said the sequester -- which would take effect if Congress is unable to agree on a debt reduction agrement -- could be a "disaster" for military planning.
On subsequent question, involving issues raised by critics, Hagel repeats: He will do what it takes to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and he backs the global sanctions currently begin applied to Iran.
Hagel also reports: President Obama has not made a decision of the size of a residual force in Afghanistan after 2014.
10:13 a.m. -- Hagel begins his opening statement, saying he is humbled by the opportunity to be the nation's defense secretary.
Hagel say he will always give President Obama his most honest and informed advice, and national security will be at the forefront of his policy.
Citing his critics, Hagel says he isn't defined by any single statement or Senate vote, and he has consistently supported American engagement in the world. Hagel, a critic of the Iraq war during the George W. Bush administration, says the nation must be "wise" in the way the U.S. projects its power.
The Pentagon nominee discussed the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, ongoing counter-terrorism efforts, the challenges of cyber warfare -- and he pledged to block Iran from obtaining the means to make a nuclear weapon, a major point of contention with the Republicans.
On another GOP dispute, Hagel promised to support the national security of Israel.
Citing yet another sensitive topic, Hagel also said he would make "smart and strategic budget decisions," ones that protect troops, veterans, and national security. "We must always take care of our people," Hagel says.
Our USA TODAY colleague Tom Vanden Brook writes that the Hagel hearing has drawn a standing room only crowd.
When Hagel entered the room, Tom notes, a protester shouted at him about granting benefits to the spouses of gay and lesbian troops. "Hagel didn't acknowledge her," Vanden Brook notes. "In his written testimony, he vowed to do what he could to extend those benefits to all service members families."
9:50 a.m. --Hagel is formally introduced to the committee by two high-powered supporters, former chairs of the Senate Armed Services Committee from both parties: Ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Ex-Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
Nunn and Warner both sing Hagel's praises.
Warner also jokes to Hagel: "You're on your own -- good luck."
9:43 a.m. -- Now comes one of Hagel's opponents: Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okl., top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. Inhofe. who served with Hagel in the Senate, complains that Hagel did not supply enough background information to the committee.
Hagel is "a good man," Inhofe says, but he questions Hagel's views of America's role in the world -- notes he is already on record as opposing his nomination, saying he has a record of "appeasing" America's adversaries (Iran) and "shunning" its friends (Israel).
9:32 a.m. -- Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, gavels the hearing open.
Levin lauds Hagel's qualifications during an opening statement, citing his years as Vietnam veteran and U.S. senator from Nebraska.
While he cites some of the protests against Hagel's nomination -- on the issues of Iran, Israel -- Levin is a sure vote for confirmation, and a key ally for Hagel.
The committee chairman also discusses one of the next defense secretary's major tasks: Completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Other issues, Levin says: Syria, North Korea, the Arab Spring, the growth of al Qaeda terrorists in African -- and the prospect of major Pentagon cuts in the months ahead.
9:30 a.m. -- Hagel appears in the hearing room; we're just about ready.
As he makes his way around the room, Hagel hugs former Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, a major supporter.
A former senator from Nebraska, Hagel is expected to take tough questions from Republicans about his attitude toward Israel and Iran's nuclear program.