BY SEN. KELLY AYOTTE
IRAN'S FOREIGN MINISTRY expressed optimism after Chuck Hagel's nomination to serve as defense secretary, saying it might lead to practical changes in U.S. policy. His recent confirmation hearing must have given the regime's leaders a glimmer of hope.
Asked during an Armed Services Committee meeting about his views on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Sen. Hagel said, "I support the President's strong position on containment."
But that's not where the President stands. In fact, President Obama said last spring that, "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment."
And in September, in a vote of 90 to 1, the U.S. Senate explicitly rejected a policy of containment toward a nuclear-capable Iran.
When Sen. Hagel was subsequently given the opportunity to correct himself, he fumbled: "I meant to say that obviously [the President's] position on containment - we don't have a position on containment."
At that point, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) threw the witness a lifeline: "We do have a position on containment, which is that we do not favor containment."
Whether Sen. Hagel was ill-prepared, uninformed or projecting his own views, there's no question that the next defense secretary shouldn't need help stating our policy on one of the most serious national security challenges we face.
But on issue after issue, Sen. Hagel's testimony raised questions about what he knows, what he believes, and what kind of secretary of defense he would be. And in several instances, his views on critical issues fell well outside the mainstream of either party.
For example, although he acknowledged that Iran is a state sponsor of terror, and has in the past admitted that Iran helped kill our troops in Iraq, he defended his vote against designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization because it's part of "an elected legitimate" Iranian government. There is no doubt that peaceful demonstrators who were brutalized and shot at by the Iranian regime during the 2009 Green Movement would disagree - as would the families of U.S. soldiers who were injured or killed by explosives Tehran provided to insurgents in Iraq.
With regard to maintaining America's nuclear deterrent, Sen. Hagel last week backed off a Global Zero report he co-authored just last year putting forth radical recommendations that would gut our nation's nuclear triad. Its recommendations included a 10-year implementation strategy that would eliminate a leg of our nuclear triad by cutting all land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, reduce the number of Trident ballistic missile submarines, slash the size of our nuclear arsenal by 40 percent, and establish a dangerous 24- to 72-hour window in which the U.S. could not respond to a first strike by our enemies - reducing our deterrent and encouraging our adversaries to initiate attacks.
When I asked Sen. Hagel about his report, he said it was "illustrative" and denied that it contained recommendations. Yet, on its first page, he wrote that these "next steps are possible and desirable ..." Sen. Hagel then devoted four pages to arguing why these "next steps" should be implemented.
In light of North Korea's nuclear program and missile tests, as well as Iran's march toward a nuclear-weapons capability, the policy prescriptions Sen. Hagel said were "desirable" in the Global Zero report are inconsistent with the administration's nuclear modernization commitments, undermine our nuclear deterrent, and are simply downright dangerous given the threats we face.
Sen. Hagel also made the illogical statement that the secretary of defense is not a "policy-making position" - revealing a startling lack of understanding about the role of the nation's Pentagon chief.
To the contrary, the secretary of defense is one of the most important and powerful policymakers in the U.S. government - the person the President turns to for guidance on running the nation's defense programs. If the secretary of defense isn't a policymaker, who is?
Sen. Hagel has earned the respect and gratitude of all Americans for his long record of service to our country - including his time in combat in Vietnam.
But the U.S. Senate has a constitutional responsibility to provide advice and consent on the President's nominees. And based on Sen. Hagel's record, his past statements, and his testimony last week, I can't vote to confirm his nomination.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.