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Republicans hammer Obama's defense nominee

WASHINGTON -- Republican senators hammered U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary at his confirmation hearing on issues ranging from Israel and Iran to his support for a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. But with most Democrats in his corner, an unflustered Chuck Hagel seems headed for approval as Pentagon chief.

Hagel, a former Republican two-term senator from Nebraska, described his views Thursday as mainstream and closely aligned with those of Obama, the Democrat who nominated him. As a senator, Hagel often broke with Republican ranks, including his eventual criticism of the Iraq war, which Obama also opposed.

Several Republican members of the Armed Services Committee sought to portray him as radical and unsteady during the hearing Thursday. Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska called his ideas “extreme” and “far to the left” of Obama.

Despite the sharp questioning, Hagel was likely to be confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. After the daylong hearing, committee Chairman Carl Levin said the panel could vote as early as next week.

Hagel said he believes America “must engage — not retreat — in the world,” and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.

He pointed to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as an example of an urgent national security threat that should be addressed first by attempting to establish dialogue with Iranian rulers, although he said he would not rule out using military force.

“I think we're always on higher ground in every way — international law, domestic law, people of the world, people of the region to be with us on this — if we have ... gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible, peaceful way, rather than going to war,” he said.

He pushed back on the notion — first raised by one of his harshest Republican critics, Sen. James Inhofe — that he favors a policy of appeasement.

“I think engagement is clearly in our interest,” Hagel told Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who denounced the idea of negotiating with a “terrorist state.”

“That's not negotiation,” Hagel said. “Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender.”

His fiercest exchange came with Sen. John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran, onetime close friend and a vote that could carry considerable sway.

McCain pressed Hagel on whether he was right or wrong about his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to send 30,000 extra troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost.

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Republican Chuck Hagel, U.S. President Obama's choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31. (AP)

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