In a testy exchange before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain began by quoting several past statements from Hagel opposing the surge, including his claim that it would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam if it is carried out."
McCain: “Do you stand by those comments, Senator Hagel?”
Hagel: "Well Senator, I stand by them because I made them."
McCain: "Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?"
Hagel: "Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out."
McCain: "Well, I think the committee deserves your judgment about whether you were right or wrong about the surge."
Hagel: "I’ll explain why I made those comments—
McCain: "I want to know if you were right or if you were wrong. And that’s a direct question, I expect a direct answer."
Hagel: "The surge assisted in the objective, but if we review the record a little bit—
McCain: "Will you please answer the question? Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?"
Hagel: "My reference to the surge—
McCain: "Can you answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is: Were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question. I would like you to answer whether you were right or wrong and then you are free to elaborate."
McCain: "Well, let the record show that you refused to answer that question. Now, please go ahead."
Hagel: "Well, if you would like me to explain why—
McCain: "No, actually I would like an answer. Yes or no?"
Hagel: "Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no, I think it’s far more complicated than that, and as I’ve already said, my answer is I’ll defer that judgment to history. As to the comment I made about the most dangerous foreign policy decision since Vietnam was about not just the surge but the overall war of choice going in to Iraq. That particular decision that was made on the surge, but more to the point our war in Iraq, I think was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam.”
Hagel: “Aside from the cost that occurred in this country to blood and treasure, aside what that did to take our focus off of Afghanistan -- which in fact was the original and real focus of national threat to this country, Iraq was not -- I always tried to frame all the different issues before I made a decision on anything. Now just as you said, senator, we can have differences of opinion, but that’s essentially why I took the position I did."
McCain: "Fundamental difference of opinion, Senator Hagel. And Senator [Lindsey] Graham [R-S.C.] and I, and Senator [Joe] Liebermann [I-Conn.], when there were 59 votes in the United States Senate, spent our time trying to prevent that 60th. Thank God for Senator Liebermann.”
McCain: “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. Your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not."
The surge in Iraq was launched in the spring of 2007 with U.S. troop strength reaching 168,000 in September of that year. US. casualties did decline that autumn and the number of troops was slowly decreased that winter and into the spring of 2008.