Like Loretta Lynch, Ashton Carter is not a controversial Obama administration Cabinet nominee.
And like Lynch, Carter presented himself as a partner to the Senate committee that will help determine whether he is confirmed as the country’s 25th secretary of Defense.
“I pledge to make needed change in the Pentagon but also to seek support from Congress, because I know that in the end, Congress holds the power of the purse,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing Wednesday. “I look forward to partnership with this committee and what can be a period of historic advance.”
Members of the committee appeared to appreciate Carter’s opening testimony, which focused on the need to combat terrorism abroad and end hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, to U.S. military funding. Several hours into the hearing, GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota told Carter he believed that Carter would be confirmed.
But this confirmation hearing, like the one for Lynch for attorney general held last week, was not about Carter. It was about President Obama’s handling of foreign policy in the late years of his presidency, and the Defense Department that the current secretary, Chuck Hagel, will leave behind. Back in December, when Obama announced his pick for Defense secretary, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said that, because Carter “is not controversial,” his confirmation hearing “will provide a valuable opportunity to fully ventilate all of issues around this administration’s feckless foreign policy, and its grave consequences for the safety and security of our nation.”
Unlike the Lynch hearing, however, there was no direct bashing of the man Carter is hoping to succeed. McCain praised Hagel for his service during his opening remarks, and the Defense secretary’s name has hardly come up since. Compare that to last week, when Republicans repeatedly asked Lynch how she would be different than Eric Holder, for whom they didn’t hide their contempt. On Wednesday, the line of questioning about existing defense policies focused on the president who called for them and the department that instituted them, not the individual who carried them out.
When it came to the president’s fiscal 2016 budget, however, Carter didn’t know much. “I’m not familiar with the details of the 2016 budget submitted just a couple days ago,” he said early on.
At the start of the hearing, McCain wanted to know what Carter thought about the U.S. withdrawal in Iraq and what will happen in Afghanistan with American ground troops on their way out.
“I think that success is possible there,” Carter said, referring to Afghanistan. “But as you indicate, that requires the United States to continue its campaign and finish the job. I understand we have a plan. The president has a plan. I support that plan. At the same time, it’s a plan. And if I’m confirmed, and I ascertain, as the years go by, that we need to change that plan, I will recommend those changes to the president.”
Carter was more direct in his response to a question from McCain on arming the Ukrainian military in its fight against pro-Russia separatists, something that The New York Times recently reported the administration and military officials are considering.
“I’m very much inclined in that direction, Mister Chairman, because I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves,” Carter said. “The nature of those arms, I can’t say right now, because I don’t have — I haven’t conferred with our military leaders or Ukrainian leaders. But I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including to get to what I’m sure your question is, lethal arms.”
The U.S. has so far provided only nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainians, such as body armor, ready-to-eat meals, night-vision goggles, and sleeping mats. Providing lethal weapons risks bringing the U.S. into a proxy war with Russia.
Several Republicans asked whether Carter would disagree with the president on certain matters, or if he’d always back the White House’s defense policy. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked Carter to promise to “not succumb to any pressure by this administration to increase the pace of transfers” from Guantanamo Bay, the detention center in Cuba that Obama has vowed to close since he took office.
“Absolutely,” Carter told her.
Carter called sexual assault “particularly offensive” within the military as compared to civil society, “because the military ethos is one of honor and trust,” he said. “You have to trust the person who’s, so to speak, in the foxhole next to you.”
On allowing women to engage in combat roles, Carter gave two answers. “I strongly incline towards opening them all to women. But I am also respectful of the circumstances,” he said, deferring to the military leaders who would evaluate existing and future standards for women in combat.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said that he doesn’t see a concrete Obama administration strategy for defeating the Islamic State terrorists, and he asked where Carter will stand on the U.S. mission should he be confirmed. Carter’s answer suggests he’ll back Obama’s plan.
“Strategy is about connecting ends and means, and the end here is the defeat of ISIS and the sustained or lasting defeat of ISIS,” Carter said, referring to the group by a different name. “And to achieve that lasting defeat of ISIS, we are trying to rebuild the morale and power of the Iraqi military and the confidence of its government in a multisectarian approach so that we don’t revisit the Maliki experience.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., delivered the toughest line of questioning, firing off a number of potential threats — the Islamic State, Iran’s nuclear program, Russian aggression, Chinese intimidation of its neighbors — and asking Carter for his opinion about each. Carter said that all are indeed grave threats, and the U.S. is not prepared to address some of them, such as cyberterrorism. Graham was most forceful on the potential threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and on the Obama administration’s withdrawal plan for Afghanistan. And he didn’t seem satisfied with Carter’s responses.
“That plan has to change, and if it doesn’t, we are incredibly stupid as a nation,” Graham said. “I want to withdraw from Afghanistan responsibly. I want lines of defenses over there so they don’t come here. Doesn’t that make sense?”
“It does make sense,” Carter replied.
“I’m glad Afghan people are living longer and girls are going to school. But I’m worried about Americans living longer,” Graham said. “And the reason I want to continue to invest in Afghanistan and [al-Qaida-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra], and all of the others, is because they are trying to hit us. Do you believe the only way to deter radical Islam is you can’t deter it, you have to — “
“Sir, I can’t give an answer,” Carter said.
Carter’s confirmation hearing Wednesday was vastly different than Hagel’s infamous hearing in 2013. It was also less contentious than the hearing for Lynch last week — and that one was pretty mild — which means that Carter’s chances of becoming the next Defense secretary are looking pretty good.
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