Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel has been sworn in as defense secretary after a bitter confirmation fight and days before the military could see billions of dollars cut from its budget.
In remarks to Department of Defense staff on Wednesday, Hagel acknowledged challenges the department is faced with due to the possibility of automatic spending cuts -- the so-called "sequester" -- that are set to begin Friday if Congress does not take action, and as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end.
Explaining that the department will have to face up to the "reality" of a slashed budget, he said the United States must nonetheless engage the world and work with allies.
He pledged to do everything in his power to be the kind of leader that the Department of Defense and the country expect and deserve.
"We are living in a very defining time in the world, you all know that," said secretary Hagel, whose nomination was confirmed be the Senate on Tuesday. "It's a difficult time. It's a time of tremendous challenge. But there are opportunities, and I think it's important that we all stay focused obviously on our jobs -- on our responsibilities, which are immense -- but not lose sight of the possibilities for a better world."
The Senate's final vote on the nomination came nearly two weeks after his former Republican Party colleagues delayed a full vote, citing concerns about his views on the Middle East and the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Some fellow Republicans accused Hagel of being too lenient toward Iran and too critical of Israel; others found fault with his opposition to the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq.
Republicans eventually put aside their criticisms and allowed Hagel's nomination to be put to an "up or down" vote.
President Barack Obama praised the confirmation, saying it allowed the United States to "have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve."
Hagel, a former enlisted soldier, succeeds Leon Panetta and is the first Vietnam War veteran to serve as Pentagon chief.
Some information for this report was provided by AP.