Critics have “completely distorted” his record, the former Nebraska senator said in his first interview as President Barack Obama’s designated choice to be secretary of defense.
At last, Hagel said, with his nomination announced by the president, he has an opportunity to set the record straight.
While he has been “hanging out there in no-man’s land unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions,” Hagel said, a negative assessment of his record by critics and opponents took on a life of its own.
But the fact is that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel.”
“I didn’t sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn’t solve a problem,” Hagel said.
Critics have hammered Hagel for not joining most of his Senate colleagues in signing on to a number of policy pronouncements that sometimes were sought by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington.
“How does that further the peace process in the Middle East?” Hagel asked. “What’s in Israel’s interest is to help Israel and the Palestinians find some peaceful way to live together.”
As for allegations that he has been soft toward Iran’s apparent efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capacity, Hagel pointed to his support for strong international sanctions, including those now in place.
“I have not supported unilateral sanctions because, when it is us alone, they don’t work and they just isolate the United States,” he said.
“United Nations sanctions are working. When we just decree something, that doesn’t work.
“The distortions about my record have been astounding,” Hagel added.
He said it’s important to answer now with an accurate assessment of his positions.
But, Hagel noted, it’s also important to recognize that “the president is commander-in-chief, and he makes the final decisions” on those issues.
“The secretary of defense has the responsibility to give the president the best advice I can give him on national security matters,” Hagel said.
“I will do that. I will give him my most honest advice.”
And, Hagel said, he also would always be truthful with members of Congress.
“I fully recognize that confirmation is up to the Senate. All I ask is a fair hearing, and I will get that. I am very much looking forward to having a full, open, transparent hearing about my qualifications and my record.
“All I look for is an opportunity to respond,” Hagel said.
“I intend to make this relationship a partnership, Democrats and Republicans. I would work with them as well as the president.
“I will always tell you the truth, tell you what I think,” Hagel said. “I have great confidence in this president. He is one of the most decent people we’ve had in the White House. He is a good man. He and I don’t agree on everything, but he wants people who will be honest with him.”
Hagel said he wasn’t looking for another job when Obama asked him to consider the appointment.
“Of course, I said I would.”
Hagel is a professor at Georgetown University. He is co-chairman of Obama’s intelligence advisory board and a member of the secretary of defense’s policy board.
Twice wounded in combat in Vietnam as an infantry sergeant, Hagel would bring a soldier’s perspective to the Pentagon along with his experience as a two-term senator who served on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Recognizing that his views on Israel and Iran have been the focus of most of the opposition to his nomination expressed in advance by some senators, Hagel said he looks forward to responding with a more accurate understanding of his views.
“I have said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism,” he said. “I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.
“Israel is in a very, very difficult position. No border that touches Israel is always secure. We need to work to help protect Israel, so it doesn’t get isolated.
“Furthering the peace process in the Middle East is in Israel’s interest.”