U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he was ready to back military action if necessary against Iran or other adversaries. Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel told lawmakers he endorsed Obama's stance on Iran's nuclear program, with military force as an option if diplomacy fails.
"My policy has always been the same as the president's -- one of prevention, not of containment," he said. "And the president has made clear that is the policy of our government. As secretary of defense I will make sure that the department [of defense] is prepared for any contingency. That's my job, that's my responsibility."
The hearing was the first time Hagel has publicly addressed criticism that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel or tough enough on Iran. He has also been questioned by Republicans about his vote against the U.S. military surge in Iraq, which he voted against when he was a senator, and which many people view as a success in helping to end U.S. involvement in Iraq.
John McCain (Republican-Arizona) questioned him sharply on this issue as well as if Hagel supports the U.S. becoming more involved in the civil war in Syria.
Hagel was also criticized in the past for his comments about the influence of a "Jewish lobby" and his description of a diplomatic nominee as "openly, aggressively gay."
Hagel also told the committee that it will be important to obtain immunity from prosecution for any U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan after the allied combat mission ends in 2014.
He maintained that if U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan after 2014 their role should be limited to to a few defined activities.
"President [Barack Obama] has made clear, and I agree, that there should be only two functions for the U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan after 2014 -- counterterrorism, particularly to target Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and training and advising Afghan forces," he said. "It's time we forge a new partnership with Afghanistan -- with its government, and most importantly with its people."
Hagel insisted that he wanted to ensure that America's armed forces remained the strongest in the world, and addressed criticism for his support for cuts in nuclear weapons.
"While we pursue the reductions in our deployed stockpiles and launchers consistent with the new START treaty, I am committed to maintaining a modern, strong, safe, ready, and effective nuclear arsenal," he said. "America's nuclear deterrent over the last 35 years has played a central role in ensuring global security and the avoidance of World War III."
If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel would replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
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