New U.S. defense chief supports a strong Israeli military

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Chuck Hagel, named to be President Barack Obama’s defense chief, on Thursday told a skeptical Senate panel considering his nomination that he backs U.S. policy of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and supports a strong Israeli military.

Critics in Congress have sought to portray Hagel, a former Republican senator and decorated Vietnam war veteran, as a soft on Iran and anti-Israel, pointing to past comments that Hagel’s supporters say were taken out of context or distorted.

Hagel spoke publicly saying America must maintain its powerful global position.

“My overall world view has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world.”

Committee chairman Carl Levin said his concerns, especially over Hagel’s past comments about unilateral sanctions on Iran, had been addressed. “Senator Hagel’s reassurance to me ... that he supports the Obama administration’s strong stance against Iran is significant,” Levin said.

Hagel, who broke with his Republican party over the Iraq War, was expected to face a much more confrontational Senate hearing panel. Beyond tough questioning on Israel and Iran, he was also expected to be grilled on his view of the Pentagon budget - Hagel is known as an advocate for tighter spending controls.

Hagel also detailed his views in 112 pages of written responses to wide-ranging questions submitted by lawmakers.

In them, he said that if confirmed as the next defense secretary, he would ensure that the military is prepared to strike Iran if necessary but stressed the need to be “cautious and certain” when contemplating the use of force.

In his opening remarks, Hagel said all options must be on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -language used to suggest the possibility of a nuclear strike.

“My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment,” he said.

Hagel, in his opening remarks and earlier responses to the panel, also voiced support for a steady U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, pledged to ensure equal treatment for women and homosexuals in the military and assured the committee that the United States would maintain an “unshakeable” commitment to Israel’s security.

“I will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region,” he said.

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